This day is celebrated on 25th May in memory of Douglas Adams, one of those brilliant minds that the United Kingdom seems to produce at regular intervals. (Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking, JK Rowling, Rosalind Franklin (whose original X ray gave Crick and Watson the idea for DNA).
He was born Douglas Noel Adams in 1952 in Cambridge and liked to joke that he was DNA before there was DNA (the double helix was recognized in 1953 in Cambridge).
While he is famous for the increasingly badly named trilogy in five parts –the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, he has also written the Dirk Gently series, The Meaning of Liff, The Last Chance to See and a book that was published posthumously– The Salmon of Doubt.
The Meaning of Liff and The Deeper Meaning of Liff, both by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd are like a dictionary. All of the words are actually place names, taken mostly from locations in the UK, but also from the rest of the planet. These place names are matched with meanings that don’t yet have words of their own, usually with very humorous results
Aboyne (vb.): To beat an expert at a game of skill by playing so appallingly that none of his clever tactics or strategies are of any use to him.
Climpy (adj.): Allowing yourself to be persuaded to do something and pretending to be reluctant.
Dalmilling (ptcl. vb.): Continually making small talk to someone who is trying to read a book.
Farnham (n.): The feeling you get at about four o’clock in the afternoon when you haven’t got enough done.
Motspur (n.): The fourth wheel of a supermarket trolley which looks identical to the other three but renders the trolley completely uncontrollable.
How genius are all these?!
He also contributed to cult classics like Doctor Who and it is also believed that Men in Black movies were inspired a bit by the Hitchhikers series
I stumbled upon his books when I was lent a well- worn and obviously much loved copy of the first book in my teens and I was swept away. Much as I loved Alice in Wonderland for its absurdity, this was a whole new spectacularly mad universe on a vastly different scale! The sheer insanity of it all was like being in freefall throughout the book. Curiouser and curiouser!
I almost breathed the book in, I read it so fast and then the next and the next and finally the last one. So long and thanks for all the fish. I read these in the late 80s when there was no internet and no access to reviews and fanfics and even fan clubs were conducted painfully via snail mail. I shudder to think that it is quite possible for me to have carried on being on this planet and perhaps missing out on Douglas Adams books altogether! Thank you friend who made the introduction!
Reading his books opened up a world of so much madness from the Electric Monks who were created only to believe, to the simply insane plot devices that use Xanadu poems and a sofa in the stairs and Valhalla and the homeless.
It is also so British through and through with the cup of tea that paralyses the ships computer and the rain clouds that follow Dirk because he is a reborn Rain God, or the Improbability Drive.
Douglas Adams has come up with so many original and frankly insane concepts whereas someone would be happy with having created just one unique character.
The Hitchhiker series started as a radio show and then became a book. The titles include gems such as Life the Universe and Everything, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and So Long and Thanks for all the Fish !
In this series an alien race programs a computer called Deep Thought to provide the ultimate answer to “Life, the Universe and Everything”. After seven and a half million years’ calculation, back came the answer – 42.
In slightly less time – two years- a team at the Cavendish Laboratory has managed the same feat, using a new technique to estimate the value of the “Hubble Constant”. This measures how quickly objects in the universe are receding from each other – a natural outcome of the Big Bang that created the universe. Dr Richard Saunders, who led the research, sounded a trifle abashed by the result.
“We have taken two measurements for the constant, and the average of them is, well, it’s 42,” he said.
But he insisted this is “entirely fortuitous” – though thousands of fans of the Hitch Hiker novels might disagree.
When Douglas Adams wrote the novel 20 years ago he chose the number especially for its bathetic nature: “I wanted a nice, ordinary number, one that you wouldn’t mind taking home and introducing to your parents.”
He also casually said things like this in speeches “I remember once, a long time ago, needing a definition of life for a speech I was giving. Assuming there was a simple one and looking around the Internet, I was astonished at how diverse the definitions were and how very, very detailed each one had to be in order to include “this” but not include “that.” If you think about it, a collection that includes a fruit fly and Richard Dawkins and the Great Barrier Reef is an awkward set of objects to try to compare.”
In a speech about an artificial god and the idea that the universe was created for humans he says : “This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world I find myself in – an interesting hole I find myself in – fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!” This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be all right, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch-out for.”
And he came up with this fantastic concept of 4 ages of sand, in which human progress has used sand to make glass. This glass was used for telescopes then microscopes both of which radically changed the way humans being saw their place in the universe. Then came silicon chips which allowed computers to be built and now finally the 4th stage of fibreoptics which allows the great world wide web.
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is now a TV series which I must confess to liking because they have managed to capture the spark of galloping madness that inhabits Dirk despite having literally almost nothing to do with the books. I spent the entire first episode shouting at the screen because nothing was like the books till my kids were ready to throw me out. But somehow it works. And some touches are so brilliant that Douglas Adams would have approved. I mean seriously what can complement a holistic detective better than a holistic assassin, right? And then of course there is the ‘pararibulitis’ which is its own universe of being crazy as a bag of wasps.
Of course the books are brilliant beyond anything the TV series can hope to encompass, no matter how well it does. I mean how can anything top a book that includes the real meaning of the Xanadu did Kublai Khan poem, a sofa that is stuck on a staircase, a time machine that works through a dial up phone and the origins of the very life on our planet, all into a seamless and almost plausible plot ?!
So if you have not yet discovered these books, all I can say is– Don’t Panic!
Start slow and easy and enjoy the ride.
After all it’s Mostly Harmless.