Given Douglas Adams’ particular feelings regarding deadlines, I don’t suppose I should feel bad about not realizing that yesterday marked the 10-year anniversary of his death until late into the evening. But feel bad I did, because even though I have nothing particularly ground-breaking to say about Adams and his work, and even though as an avowed atheist he would probably be pretty pissed if he were in any sort of afterlife where these types of reminiscences could reach him, it still feels important to recognize the contributions of people who have greatly influenced us, and big round-number anniversaries like yesterday seem as appropriate a time as any. So, here’s my shot in the dark about the man who, probably second only to The Simpsons, had the most to do with the way I see (and laugh about) the world.
My first exposure to the Hitchhiker’s trilogy was in a religious context. My father, asked to speak at a casual vespers ceremony that my family was attending, drew a parallel between the Bible verse he was talking about and the Babel fish. It was a move that was both geeky and also a bit subversive, in hindsight, since in the books Adams talks about the fish’s existence making God disappear in a puff of logic. Since I was young with a short attention span, I have no recollection of which verse my father was discussing, but I clearly remember being riveted by his description of the little fish that let you understand anyone. It was an idea that so simple, but so massive at the same time, that it may have single-handedly opened up my mind to the idea of science fiction as a genre. (It is also, along with Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver, one of the greatest narrative short-cuts ever devised, though it took me a while to realize that one).
That night on the way home I made my father recount every single joke and plot point he could recollect from the books, and when we got home I took his copy of Mostly Harmless into my room and started reading, completely oblivious to the fact that it was, in fact, the last book in a five-book series. I was a little confused. It didn’t help that I followed it up by reading the third book in the series, then the second, then the fourth, and finally the original damn book that started the whole thing to begin with. But I didn’t care. I was young, I was foolish, I had a limited understanding of the concept of a sequential narrative, and I was so completely enamored of Adams’ writing that I would just start plowing through whatever the first one of his books I could get my hands on was.
Even in that first, jumbled trip through the series, having no idea what the overarching story was, understanding next to none of the science and really only a quarter of the jokes, I felt a deeper connection than to any book I’d ever read. I had, in my feverish childhood brain, a completely mistaken mental picture of Zaphod Beeblebrox as a dragon-like person and Ford Prefect as the green smiling “cosmic cutie” on the book’s cover, but I still got something valuable from the experience. Essentially, I was learning what humor was. Not joke-telling, or sight gags or slap-stick, but humor as a form that encompassed all of them and then a whole lot more. Adams’ writing is essentially a crash-course in how rhythm, word choice, even punctuation and paragraph breaks, create comedy on the page. It made absolute sense to me when I learned that H2G2 had started off on the radio, because I felt like he’d been speaking to me in the books from the start.
But Adams also introduced me to the comedy of ideas, and the pairing of big concepts with little words (or little words with big concepts). The idea, for example, of boiling down the death of Jesus to a line about how “one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change” felt amazingly, hilariously frank, and it pops up three paragraphs into the first book. He keeps that kind of attitude going, constantly reminding the reader of the vastness of the Universe, while also reminding us that there’s no way we can (or would want to) actually conceive of that vastness. He also wrote a whole chapter about programming a robot to think that it liked sandwiches. He was versatile.
Since that first, completely out-of-order read-through of the series, I’ve returned to the books often; every few years they’ll sort of resurface in my brain and I’ll be compelled to re-read them all over again. Part of it, I think, is my mind rebooting itself when it’s stressed: returning to the root time and experience when I was first realizing the potential of humor, and of writing as a form. I need to get back in touch with that core inspiration occasionally, and remind myself of how wonderful words can be when they’re all working together to deliver ideas. That they still have the potential to surprise, and delight. It’s a good reminder.
I haven’t read much of Adams’ other writing, partly because H2G2 has such a prominent place in my mind, and partly because I don’t really want to hit the eventual point where I’ve read everything he wrote, and there’s no more out there to look forward to. If I take my time, and parcel his other works out over the decades, then I never quite have to face the sort of finality that comes at the end of Mostly Harmless, with the final box being ticked by the Vogon construction fleet. That was an ending that, as a kid, I found almost unbearably dark and lonely and sad, and even though on recent readings I’ve been able to see what Adams was saying with it, and pick out the more gentle nuance, I don’t really want to have to reconcile myself to that idea in real life. I want to stay out among his universe for a little while longer, towel in hand, and think about all the improbable possibilities.
The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul if you haven’t read it, or the first Dirk Gently book. He’s an absurd dude. And very dark in these books, too. I remember smiling through the books and being depressed at the end. Like Catch-22.
I took a crack at Dirk Gently in seventh grade, and was decidedly not up to it yet. I’ve been meaning to go back and try again for, oh, fourteen years now? Ish? This might be the nudge I’ve been needing.