Tue
Mar 11 2014 7:00am

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

Portrait by David A. JohnsonIt’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.

11 comments
Chris Long
1. radynski
Douglas Adams and his books had such a profound effect on me in high school. I grabbed up everything I could find that he had written and just devoured it. He was (and still is) the funniest writer I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

I still remember hearing of his death and not really believing it. No celebrity's death has ever hit me as hard as Adams' did. And almost 13 years later, I still haven't quite gotten over it. Every so often I'll take out The Salmon of Doubt and enjoy the developing story and then mourn as it cuts out abruptly.

One of his friends, Richard Dawkins, wrote a beautiful obituary for Douglas and I remember reading it the day he died. It still chokes me up: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2001/may/14/books.booksnews
Brad King
2. Brad King
Thank you for your tribute to one of my favorite authors. But as much as I enjoy Adams, and I have absorbed all of his H2G2 material I could find, I must make note of another sci-fi author with a sense of humor. Today not everyone thinks of Kurt Vonnegut as a sci-fi author at all, let alone one with a pioneer's spirit and sense of humor. He has been raised to the pantheon, which means nobody reads him anymore (or at least not enough people do).

However, and this in no way diminishes Douglas Adams' accomplishments, without Vonnegut I am not sure there would have been an Adams, or a Monty Python for that matter. Vonnegut experienced WWII first hand and saw the absurdity of life. From that came Slaughterhouse 5, which is about the absurdity of the universe. Read Slaughterhouse 5 and I dare you not to laugh out loud.

Adams was funnier, but Vonnegut was there first.
Brad King
4. Doug from Tally
Brad King: I've got to agree with you about Vonnegut; he was a unique writer with a very different view of the world than most of the writers of his generation. "So it goes" has been my slogan for a long time.

On the other hand, my oldest daughter fell head over heels for Adams in high school and can still quote stuff verbatim out of his books, while I just stand around scratching my head.
Sol Foster
5. colomon
I love love love Douglas Adams' work, but he certainly wasn't the first person to write comedic SF, nor was Vonnegut. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comic_science_fiction lists examples from the 1930s and 1940s. I'd argue that the sub-genre goes back to at least 1889's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court...
Luis Milan
6. LuisMilan
I had the pleasure of exchanging a few emails with Mr. Adams back in the day when email was barely starting to get used. I remember finding his email address on Usenet, on some rec.sci.fi.somethingorother group, and sending him an email just to see if it was really him.

I asked him: "Are you really Douglas Adams? THE Douglas Adams?"

And to this day I'm still sad that I didn't save his response, or at least a printout, because he answered something like:

"Well I wouldn't call myself THE Douglas Adams because it wouldn't be fair to the rest of the Douglas Adamses out there, but if you mean the writer, then yes, it's me".

The news of his passing away devastated me. I have always wondered what other great novels he would have written by now, and more than once I have tried to copy (... I mean, emulate) his writing style. But there's no comparison, really. There has been, and will always be, only one Douglas Adams (*).

---

(*) With apologies to the rest of the Douglas Adamses of the world.
Brad King
7. Crusader75
I think it is not odd at all for Adams to underestimate his importance. His best known protagonist was Arthur, after all, a character of great self-doubt, not Zaphod. Zaphod is at best a reluctant ally and sometimes nemesis to Arthur.
Brian R
8. Mayhem
@Athreeren
Exactly what I came to post.

Douglas Adams was a great humorist, but even more important he was a fantastic humanist, interested in people and their foibles for our own sake.
And his work in Last Chance To See is still one of the greatest works of conservation literature, a call to take a moment and see what is around you, and see what we've done to the place.
The truly great thing is he converts you to his viewpoint slowly and without preaching, rather he simply makes you understand we are not the be all and end all of life on this planet, and we should take note of that. The audiobook where he narrates the tale is a wonderful guide.

The revisited series with Stephen Fry is also good, to see what progress has been made, but touched with a lot of sadness at how much has simply gone extinct, including Douglas himself.
Jerald
9. Tzwolf
And I almost always take a towel with me. Incredibly practical advise.
Arthur D. Hlavaty
10. supergee
Science fiction had a sense of humor before Douglas Adams was born.
Brad King
11. Pete L
"Myself and many others, we owe our sense of humor to Adams, at least in part."

I completely agree. And perhaps our love of sci-fi, and grand adventures, and reading in general.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment