On This Day

Our Guide to the Galaxy: Douglas Adams Gave Science Fiction a Sense of Humor

It’s easy to get caught up in big ideas and brand new worlds… and forget to laugh.

Douglas Adams—born today, March 11, in 1952—was not convinced of his own worth as a writer, a comedian, and thinker of remarkably thinky thoughts. Whenever there was a dry patch in his working life, he tended to question his abilities, to fall into spates of depression and low self-worth. It’s odd to think that the man responsible for Zaphod “if there’s anything more important than my ego around, I want it caught and shot now” Beeblebrox would fail to realize his own relevance in a world that so desperately required his special brand of madness.

After all, without him, who would have told us the answer to life, the universe, and everything?

Douglas Adams was a practical giant at six foot five (that’s 1.96 meters). Not exactly the first thing you would expect to learn about him at random, but it apparently made an impression on his behalf at as a young man, while he wrote and wrote all the time. He was the only student to receive a ten out of ten in creative writing from his form master at Brentwood School. After completing university—where he insisted he had done very little work—he was determined to break into television and radio writing.

Though it wasn’t always steady work, Adams’ singular voice landed him gigs with Monty Python’s Graham Chapman and various radio sketches. He became a script editor for Doctor Who during the Tom Baker era, writing a few stories himself, and his influence on Who is arguably still felt in the show’s current incarnation. Between his writing jobs in the 70s, Adams filled in with odd paychecks gained from barn building to bodyguard-ing for a wealthy family of oil moguls. When he was writing, he reportedly took forever to complete his projects; so long that his editor once locked them together in a hotel suite for three weeks to assure that So Long and Thanks For All the Fish was finished.

Adams was best known for his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, which was first brought to life via radio, and later via book, television, and film. With a joyful blend of wit and absurdity, he proved beyond a doubt that genre fiction had a great capacity for humor and satire. There are others who have followed in his footsteps, still others who have made their own contributions in this manner (Terry Pratchett’s first Discworld novel would be released four years after the first Hitchhiker’s book), but no one has ever quite duplicated the timing of Adams’ prose, his particular insights. There is funny, and then there is Adams funny.

Those deeper insights likely came from the many other loves and causes Douglas Adams pursued in his life. He was an avid traveler, an environmentalist, a musician who played the guitar left-handed, and he was a great advocate of technological innovation. He never shied away from what computers, the internet, and new inventions could bring to humanity. He never demonized progress, but rather, he offered himself up to try new things, to see where we were headed. In fact, his ability to take on these changes with ease and good-natured amusement was nothing short of inspirational. As he so succinctly put it to anyone concerned over the (at the time) very new world wide web:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

Or to put it simply, in other words that he would use elsewhere in large, friendly letters: DON’T PANIC.

It is perhaps the cruelest irony of all that Adams did not live to see what the world of technology has become in recent years. Having access to his wisdom in this digital age would have likely been a comfort and intriguing to boot. But more than that, we are missing out on the stories he never had the opportunity to regale us with. Myself and many others, we owe our sense of humor to Adams, at least in part. He was a very real, shaping factor in our persons.

It’s easy to forget that comedy is just as difficult as drama. It’s easy to ignore the fact that humor is complex as mathematics and learning to laugh is not a mindless task. And it’s also easy to get comfortable with our favorite tropes and tales—with serious stories—and neglect the fact that any and all situations can (and often should) be hilarious. Thank goodness we had Douglas Adams to show us how.


Subscribe to this thread