Revisiting Douglas Adams— In Metaphors

One of my favorite works of Sci-Fi literature begins with a book that can only be described as “poetically spectacular insanity”. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a classic that anyone with an open-ended imagination who can truly “believe” the unbelievable and remain amused SHOULD read cover to cover. A friend of mine introduced me to Douglas Adams’ world in my early 30’s and I have never found anything even remotely close to it ever since. The first book [it is a part of a series], begins with an astonishing revelation… and what strikes me today, writing this in 2012, is that thirty+ years ago, Adams had created in his Hitchhiker’s Guide [possibly without any realization of it] as a metaphor for the world wide Internet, with its instant capability to look up information about anything on a portable device hooked into several satellites and networks… and we aren’t even running at full speed yet. So Adams himself was a bit of a prognosticator, a visionary writer who somehow “knew” that his bizarre yet translatable characters would eventually represent far more as time went by than they did when he originally created them.

The book starts out with a universal chord/question we can ALL attest to in some form. Ever have one of those days when nothing seems to go right? Arthur Dent did one Thursday. Seconds before the Earth is demolished to make way for a galactic freeway, Arthur Dent is plucked off the planet by his friend Ford Prefect, a researcher for the revised edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who, for the last fifteen years, has been posing as an out-of-work actor. At first I was a bit skeptical. But then I thought about Stephen Hawking [the British theoretical physicist and cosmologist, whose scientific books and public appearances have made him an academic celebrity.] and the… all of the endless possibilities… and I had total lift off!

Douglas Adams was a writer who, at first, as far as I could tell, had the most astonishing imagination I had ever been subjected to in fiction of any sort. I also had this theory about Adams being a true “stoner”… but I tossed it as I began to embrace the dry British wit and the words and scenarios that only a man possessing an “off the charts” Quantum IQ could even begin to include in this fictional romp through a reality that Adams created word by word. And when I say word by word… he literally created words that explained and identified specific items or alien beings.

Together this dynamic pair begin a journey through space aided by quotes from The Hitchhiker’s Guide (“A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have”) and a galaxy-full of fellow travelers: Zaphod Beeblebrox— the two-headed, three-armed ex-hippie and totally out-to-lunch president of the galaxy; Trillian, Zaphod’s girlfriend (formally Tricia McMillan), whom Arthur tried to pick up at a cocktail party once upon a time zone; Marvin, a paranoid, brilliant, and chronically depressed robot; Veet Voojagig, a former graduate student who is obsessed with the disappearance of all the ballpoint pens he bought over the years. Where are these pens? Why are we born? Why do we die? Why do we spend so much time between wearing digital watches? For all the answers stick your thumb to the stars. And don’t forget to bring a towel!

This is an amazing book peopled with unforgettable characters such as the three-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox, who like politicians of the non-extinct earth, was always of three minds on any subject, and was often heard talking to himself.

Having plumbed the heights and depths of the novel genre, Adams eventually teamed up John Lloyd on The Meaning of Liff, a small book of definitions of unusual words with the glowing promise on its dust jacket: This Book Will Change Your Life. An example is “halifax (n.) The green synthetic Astroturf on which greengrocers display their vegetables.” For those of you who bought the book, but never made it to page 55, you have missed the essential recursive nature of this book (and Adam’s humor): Liff (n.) A book, the contents of which are totally belied by its cover. For instance, any book whose dust jacket bears the words This book will change your life.

One can only guess that John Lloyd’s function in the writing of this book was to keep Douglas Adams from taking himself too seriously, as this definition shows. It is good to know that when the end of the Universe comes, there will be a good restaurant for us to meet in, and over tea and crumpets, we can leisurely observe the Universe as it comes to an end. Till then, remember the words emblazoned on the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Don’t Panic!”

Douglas Adams died of a heart attack on May 11th, 2001, at the age of 49, after resting from his regular workout at a private gym in Montecito, California. He had unknowingly suffered a gradual narrowing of the coronary arteries, which led at that moment to a myocardial infarction and a fatal cardiac arrhythmia. Adams had been due to deliver the commencement address at Harvey Mudd College on May 13th, 2001. His funeral was held in Santa Barbara, California. His remains were subsequently cremated and the ashes placed in Highgate Cemetery in North London in June of 2002. One of my own “personal” favorite Douglas Adams quotes is the following: “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.”


~ by upbeatmag on February 4, 2012.

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