Douglas Adams

Douglas Adams. I was going to write. Didn’t happen. So, now it’s after work, and I’ve had some time to think about things, about who Douglas Adams was and what his work meant to me. Good things. I’m not sure if I’m shocked or if I’m sad because I’m honestly both.

Woke up this morning, the coffee pot had died yesterday so no morning caffeine jolt, and I’ve got a nasty cold and raw throat so orange juice has become a painful experience going down, so I was stuck with fixing a cup of tea, which is fine but I’m not a big tea drinker. Unless it’s iced tea.

So, got up, ate some breakfast, made faces at the cat, and checked my e-mail before work. Then went and checked out rec.arts.drwho, and saw a dozen threads, all devoted to the memory of Douglas Adams.

I wanted to cry.

It’s kind of hard to sum up the role of Douglas Adams in my life. I know when I first learned of him; it was when So Long and Thanks for All the Fish was published, so the early 1980s, maybe 1984 or so. He did an interview on DC’s NBC station’s local newscast, and while I don’t remember much of the interview (beyond the fact that I saw it), I do remember being very intrigued. What I do remember was a general sense from Adams that if we don’t stop to enjoy the world around us and have some fun doing so, we’ll really end up being fairly miserable because the universe isn’t going to make us have fun. And somewhere around 1985 I made my dad take me to B. Daltons in Valley Mall in Harrisonburg so I could buy a box-set of the four Hitchhikers books. He wasn’t exactly pleased with that; it wasn’t out of the way, but we were going to visit my grandparents and my dad could be seriously regimented when it came to time.

I read the Hitchhikers books over a four day period, one book a day. And I thought they were incredibly goofy and downright bizarre.

I probably didn’t look at them again until I was handed a floppy disk in 1987 containing the computer game version of Hitchhikers. I didn’t like the game that much; it was a pretty literal translation of the first book into a game format. Construction crew comes, so you lie down in the mud, then you wait for Ford to show up, and then Ford tells the foreman to get down in the mud, then you go to the pub, then you have a pint, then you and Ford end up on the Vogon ship, then you escape once you get the Babelfish (and if you don’t get the Babelfish the Vogon poetry is even worse), and then you end up on the Heart of Gold, and at that point the game goes weird. Basically, Ford and Trillian leave you in a room and you can’t do anything. Never did get past that point.

I reread the series around 1994 or 1995. I was working one day at the Payless in Valley View, went in the B. Dalton’s there, and bought the omnibus edition of the four novels and “Young Zaphod Plays It Safe.” A perspective of ten years brought a lot more appreciation to the books. But then Mostly Harmless came out, and I was really disappointed in it. It was boring, it was pointless, it wasn’t funny. Ford and Arthur visit Earth, only it’s a parallel Earth where Trillian didn’t run off with Zaphod at the party and instead Arthur and Trillian married and had a daughter. I’ve only read it once, and maybe I should read it again, but I wonder if I’d care for the book any more.

Dirk Gently, on the other hand, did nothing for me when I first read it. Nothing. What was this? I asked myself. Is this supposed to be funny, because it’s just too weird? Time did change my opinion here, and I realized that they were supposed to be weird, especially when I realized the connection the two books had to Doctor Who. (Dirk Gently is sort of the Doctor; Professor Chronotis from “Shada” sort of shows up.)

Adams’ Doctor Who connection I never realized, at least not until 1997 or so.

The point of Douglas Adams’ work, it seemed to me, was to show how the universe itself is fundamentally unreal, and if we try to take the universe’s innate unreality too seriously we’re bound to drive ourselves around the bend. Hence, Marvin the Paranoid Android. Arthur Dent was the ultimate everyman, thrown into a circumstance that showed how completely uncomplacent the universe was and how utterly strange it is, and yet he managed to survive because he came to accept the unreality of the situations around him.

The world needs more writers like Douglas Adams. His genius and creativity will sorely be missed.

His work has meant different things to me at different points in my life. I’ve probably not looked at one of his books in three or four years, haven’t read one all the way through in longer than that. And I certainly haven’t seen one of his Who episodes, other than “Shada” in at least a decade. So, I’m shocked at his loss, the loss of one not even fifty, one of such undeniable talent. But I’m also saddened because I remember a lot of things that really said something to me in his work. A sense of sardonicism, a skeptical look at the universe around us. He’s faulted, I know, for being a little too much the-devil-may-care in his work, but I think that’s entirely appropriate, because that’s the point I think he was trying to make, that if we take the world too seriously we’re sorely missing out on the things around us because we’re not appreciating them for what they are. Hence Last Chance to See or The Meaning of Liff.

If there’s one last lesson we can take from Douglas Adams it is this: never go anywhere without a towel. It’s probably the most useful object in the universe because it’s incredibly handy. About the only thing you can’t do with it is eat it, unless you’re my cat. Tails will eat anything.

Rest in peace, Douglas Adams. You did good, and you’ll be missed.

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