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Douglas Adams is best known for the series of interrelated books that began with his popular first novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy(1979). Mixing deadpan humor, black comedy, and satire, these works use elements from the science fiction genre to portray a chaotic universe populated by such entities as chattering objects and bizarre alien creatures with ridiculous names. Originally written as a series of radio scripts broadcast on British Radio, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has proved immensely popular, generating a theater production, a television series, audio recordings, and four sequels to the novel. Although some critics label Adams a science fiction writer, Adams has asserted that he is a ”comedy writer” who merely uses ”the devices of science fiction to send up everything else. The rest of the world… is a better subject to take than just science fiction.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Footlights Revue and Doctor Who
Douglas Noel Adams was born in Cambridge on March 11, 1952, the son of Christopher Douglas Adams and Jane Dora Donovan Adams. He was educated at Brentwood School in Essex and then at St. John’s College, Cambridge. At Cambridge, Adams was a member of the Footlights revue group. Following in the tradition of previous members who had gone on to develop such shows as Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Adams eventually formed his own revue group, Adam Smith Adams, for which he wrote, performed, and sometimes directed shows produced in London and Cambridge and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Adams’s work belongs to a peculiarly English (and particularly Oxford and Cambridge) tradition of student comedy. Like “Oxbridge” satire—which has been criticized for focusing on parody, pastiche, and self-conscious cleverness while rarely entering into the realm of politics—Adams’s comic novels are indebted to satirical sketch writing and undergraduate humor, while avoiding direct treatment of political controversy.
On graduating from Cambridge in 1974, Adams began to write for radio and television. During 19781980 he was script editor for the science fiction series Doctor Who and wrote several episodes of the cult show. Traces of its influence may be found in Adams’s fiction. Like Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Doctor Who addresses, in a futuristic setting, anxieties about contemporary science, technology, and culture. Like the scripts of Doctor Who, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series plays with obscure scientific language and flirts with the dangers of technology, opposing the ordinariness of daily life against the extraordinary possibilities of technology.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had its origins as a series for BBC radio, first broadcast in 1978. After a trip across Europe, inspired by the format of practical travel guides such as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe by Ken Welsh, Adams set out to write a guide to the mysteries of the galaxy. With the reassuringly familiar voice of Peter Jones, a BBC radio celebrity, as ”The Book,” the radio series was self-consciously comic.
In 1979 Adams reworked the radio script as a novel. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the ”Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council” has scheduled the planet Earth for demolition in order to build a ”hyperspatial express route.” After this wholesale destruction of the Earth in the opening pages of the text, Adams went on to create a range of new worlds, all of which are used to parody the vagaries of twentieth-century Britain, just as Jonathan Swift satirized eighteenth-century England in his works. Adams wrote four sequels, creating a five-book series that was originally—and later, with tongue in cheek—promoted as a trilogy: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980), Life, the Universe, and Everything (1982), So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (1984), and Mostly Harmless (1992). The third novel was originally conceived by Adams as a film idea for the character of Doctor Who prior to working on that show as a script editor.
Popular Success and a New Franchise
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels became huge successes, spawning a 1979 theatrical performance directed by Ken Campbell and a television production in 1981, as well as a record album and a computer game. The reassuring ”Don’t Panic”—emblazoned on the cover of ”The Book”—became a familiar catchphrase and appeared on badges. The influence of the original series remains apparent in several radio and television imitations—among them the cult British television-comedy series Red Dwarf—as well as in contemporary television and radio commercials that replicate the reassuring and all-knowing voice of ”The Book” and employ versions of Adams’s creative space-alien creatures.
Adams was also the author of two parodic detective novels, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987) and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988), both located in a world that bears a marked resemblance to the landscapes of Adams’s childhood and student years at Cambridge. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency was heavily influenced by two Doctor Who episodes written a decade earlier by Adams, with several plot elements borrowed from the original episodes and used in the novel. Once again, Adams used a traditional form of popular fiction to address the preoccupations of the contemporary world. Like Arthur Dent, the protagonist of the Hitchhiker series, Dirk Gently attempts, in a frustratingly inconsequential world, to tie up all the loose ends of the mysteries of life.
Champion of the Environment
In 1985, Adams took an assignment to travel to various locations around the world in the company of a zoologist, documenting a search for specimens of the world’s most endangered species. This resulted in both the radio series and the nonfiction book Last Chance to See (1990). Although the book was not as commercially successful as his novels, Adams referred to the book as one of the most rewarding projects on which he had ever worked. This reflects a common theme in Adams’s work regarding the double-edged sword of technology, which can provide great advancements for humanity but also lead to destruction of the natural world.
Adams found it very difficult to write and once had to be confined to a hotel room by his publisher to make him finish a novel. ”I would never sit down and write for pleasure because it’s too much like hard work,” he told the Times of London, so the pleasure his work continues to give thousands of readers is the more admirable. He had moved to Santa Barbara, California, and was working on the script for a movie adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when he died unexpectedly in 2001 at the age of forty-nine. The script was finished by Karey Kirkpatrick, and the film was released in 2005 with a dedication to Adams. Unfinished written work and other papers, essays, and speeches have been collected in The Salmon of Doubt (2002).
Works in Literary Context
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy pokes fun at the pomposities and incomprehensibility of computer experts and government departments. It hit a contemporary nerve in offering a hero who is as baffled by scientific language as is most of the audience; yet, it also helped to familiarize people, particularly the British, with the language of the digital organization and retrieval of data.
Fear of Change
Having originated as a radio series in the year before Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy may, in retrospect, be seen as haunted by a fear of change and infused by a sense that the individual can no longer rely on the social order for protection. Arthur Dent, a new homeowner, is unable to protect his investment; no benign council can save his house; and there is no state support to help him to cope with the end of the world. Like the heroine of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Arthur is swept into an illogical new world with an eccentric and alien guide: Ford Prefect, who becomes his hitchhiking companion, serves as the equivalent of Alice’s White Rabbit. Unlike Alice, however, Arthur has been whisked away in an alien spacecraft, and while Alice finally returns to her cozy Victorian world, all that is familiar to Dent has been destroyed. Although he is allowed to return to an earlier version of Earth in later volumes, it can never be the same again. The forces of change that were so evident in the late 1970s do not allow Arthur, or the reader, any sense of stability.
The central relationship between Arthur Dent, the innocent abroad, and Ford Prefect, alien being and Arthur’s great chum, is the one reassuring constant of the series and also one of its great strengths. In the mold of the buddy movies of the late 1960s and the 1970s the most important relationship in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series is between Arthur and Ford. Their relationship celebrates male bonding while marginalizing heterosexual romance. Arthur does not have an important relationship with a woman until the fourth volume of the series, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. As in many motion pictures of the 1970s and early 1980s, Adams dealt with the impact of the contemporary feminist movement by almost entirely excluding women from his fiction.
Another endearing figure in Arthur’s alien universe is Marvin, a depressive android who, once again, serves to combine aspects of the strange and the familiar. A reworking of the gloomy Eeyore (the donkey of A. A. Milne’s 1926 book Winnie-the-Pooh), Marvin is afflicted by paranoia and melancholy, a deskilled worker whose superhuman intelligence is rarely utilized by the fellow travelers he regards as his inferiors. This gloomy representation of an intelligent mind wasted on the banal tasks asked of him addressed the fears and fantasies of a generation of 1980s British graduates, many of whom were facing unemployment and a great number of whom were among Adams’s readership.
The Meaning of Life
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Adams flirted with such big philosophical questions as the meaning of life, the search for absolute answers in a relativistic world, and the potentiality of new technologies. He consistently set up these issues as serious problems but rarely followed through with any rigor. While the jokiness of the first radio series and novel had an engaging charm, in subsequent volumes this tone was too insubstantial to carry the philosophical weight Adams suggested. Adams intelligently set up the real problems faced by contemporary British society, but rather than seriously pursue them, he chose to evade them with archness and witty dismissiveness. Indeed, the quest for answers and philosophical enlightenment is portrayed throughout the series as somewhat futile. Adrift in an alien and alienated galaxy, Arthur and Ford Prefect’s most pressing question is, ”Where shall we have dinner?” and the Restaurant at the End of the Universe is enough of an answer for them.
Works in Critical Context
Initially, reviewers praised The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, pleased to have found a book that attempted to be humorous and was, for the most part, successful. ”This hilarious and irrepressibly clever book is one of the best pieces of humor to be produced this year,” applauded Rosemary Herbert in Library Journal.
Because science fiction is a genre that often takes itself too seriously, critics have tended to take The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels as a breath of fresh air. Lisa Tuttle, writing in the Washington Post, compared the book’s relationship to traditional science fiction novels and concluded that ”it’s extremely funny— a rare and precious conjunction in a field where what usually passes as humor is a bad pun at the end of a dull story.”
As the series of books progressed and came to be known as The Hitchhiker Trilogy (even after the publication of the fourth and fifth novels), reviewers found it more and more resistible. John Clute, who reviewed The Hitchhiker’s Guide for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, acknowledged that the book was a joy. He also gave recognition to the less clever elements that it involved: ”Given its music-hall premises, the tone of Hitchhiker is sometimes damagingly sophomoric, and there is a constant taint of collegiate wit in the naming of silly names and the descriptions of silly alcoholic beverages.” He went on to praise the novel as ”one of the genre’s rare genuinely funny books,” but the elements that he pointed out tended to become more obvious to reviewers as they appeared in one book after the next.
Losing the element of surprise did not stop Adams from producing the series’ fourth and fifth installments, and though reviewers, taking the series for granted, did not express further delight, there has been growing respect for Adams’s growth as a novelist. While the first book in the series was appreciated for what it was not—a traditional science fiction comedy— Adams’s later works have been praised for their characterization and plotting.
Toronto Globe and Mail reviewer H. J. Kirchhoff maintained that Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is Adams’s best novel. That is, his characters are more fully delineated … , the settings more credible and the plot more . . . well, linear.”
- Bestsellers 89. Issue 3. Detroit: Gale, 1989.
- Cox, Don R. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 27. Detroit: Gale, 1984.
- Gaiman, Neil. Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe Companion. New York: Pocket Books, 1988.
- Smith, Curtis C., ed. Twentieth-Century Science Fiction Writers. Detroit: St. James Press, 1986.
- The Digital Village and Douglas Adams. The Official Douglas Adams Web site. Accessed February 20, 2008, from http://www.douglasadams.com
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