Last Chance to See, Douglas Adams and Mark Cawradine

Stoddart, 1990, 208 pages, C$??.?? hc, ISBN 0-7737-2454-0

British writer Douglas Adams has already earned a place in SF’s hall of fame with a series of zany SF comedies beginning with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Depending heavily on a keep sense of the absurd and a deep knowledge of genre conventions, the series has known enormous success, and rumors of a cinematic adaptation have been going on for at least twenty years.

This has made Adams simultaneously rich and annoyed. Sure, now he’s worth millions due to enormous sales. On the other hand, it must be tough to deal with those hordes of fans constantly demanding a sequel to the Hitchhiker’s series. (Some conspiracy theorist insist that the fifth and so far final book of the series, 1992’s Mostly Harmless, was deliberately awful and depressing to ensure that no one will even demand another sequel.)

With Last Chance to See, Adams gets as far away from interstellar adventures as possible, yet wisely keeps all the elements that have made the success of his best-known works.

Last Chance to See is about animal species being driven to extinction. With a subject like that, you’d be forgiven to expect preachy moralism and dramatic didactism. But that isn’t Adams’ style: He makes the unusual choice to go for comedic earnestness. In short, he considers Earth as a foreign planet.

Fortunately, he’s got a lot of material to work with: As most endangered species are located in hard-to-reach places far from civilization, the travel accommodations of Adams and straight-man zoologist Mark Cawradine often make up for quasi-alien strangeness. Not everyone around the world believes in punctuality, honesty, integrity or even safety. To see our intrepid -but incurably British- travelers deal with the travel difficulties is one of the highlights of the book.

And this is a book with so many highlights, so many delights, so many laugh-aloud moments that it’s hard to isolate favorite excerpts. Adams plays a perfect buffoon, and makes of co-writer Cawradine a splendid foil. Their comedy duo adds a lot to a book that’s already quite enjoyable as it is. I defy anyone to come up with many other examples of such compulsively readable travel journalism. Not only won’t you be able to put it down, but you’ll also want to give copies to your friends.

But don’t get the impression that even though the book is a laugh riot, that it’s completely without deeper meaning. If anything else, the comedy makes the pathos even more poignant, giving to the book an air of playing a funny violin air as a library is burning. Adams’s talent at perception reversion through absurdity illustrates splendidly the oft-unbelievable ironies of the world. It’s not hard to imagine Adams as an alien journalist commenting upon the world. But they again, he’s had plenty of practice at that.

Simultaneously moving and unbelievably funny, Last Chance to See is a curiosity, a moralistic book that can be enjoyed without guilt, and a goofy style that’s nevertheless devastatingly intelligent. It’s going to hold up very well to a re-reading in some time. You might have a hard time finding a copy, but it will be worth it. It would be even better if some publisher re-edited the book with an updated epilogue.

If Douglas Adams wants to give up SF comedy for non-fiction on a regular basis, consider me subscribed.

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