Tag Archives: Douglas Adams

The Salmon of Doubt, Douglas Adams

Pan, 2002, 284 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-330-32312-1

There is a lot to be said against the type of book exemplified by Douglas Adams’ The Salmon of Doubt. It is, after all, a posthumous collection of Adams’ shorter pieces. The very idea of a bundling of scraps ready to be sold to hordes of grieving readers is borderline distasteful. Literary necrophilia is one way of calling it; fan exploitation is another. It’s the sort of thinking that leads to authors being more prolific after death (hello, L. Ron Hubbard) through a homoeopathic publishing technique in which more and more of the original content is distilled away by hired ghostwriters.

Fortunately, The Salmon of Doubt manages to please fans without too much of an aftertaste. Offering the closest thing to a Douglas autobiography, it brings together several short magazine pieces, interviews and columns. More unusually, it bundles everything with a short story, a barn-burning speech on artificial intelligence and eleven chapters of Douglas’ unfinished last Dirk Gently novel, the eponymous Salmon of Doubt.

Ignore, if you will, the ghoulish foreword in which the knowledgeable editor describes how he had Douglas Adams’ hard drive mirrored and rescued from the digital abyss. Most of The Salmon of Doubt is made of previously published material (a lot of it available online) previously scattered over thirty five year’s worth of publication. There’s nothing evil in bringing together this material. It’s even a service to Adams fans who want to complete their collection of material. What’s more, it allows Adams to speak for himself, a fascinating prospect given the breath of his intellect.

And so we get to the book’s first section, “Life”, which collects autobiographical material. From Douglas’ first published piece (a 1965 letter in Eagle and Boys’ World Magazine) to essays about his schooling, his work, his nose and so on. A number of interviews are here collected, giving a glimpse in the number of passions that Adams pursued. The inimitable Adamsian wit is in full display throughout the section. (As far as I’m concerned, the following quote is worth the price of the book: “Every country is like a particular type of person. America is like a belligerent adolescent boy, Canada is like an intelligent thirty-five year old woman. Australia is like Jack Nicholson.” [P.45]) Two lengthier travelogues complete the picture, representing Douglas’ love of exotic places.

The second section, “the Universe”, deals in weightier topics and lengthier pieces. Computers are discussed in general, and Apple computers in specific. Also reprinted is Douglas’ famous interview with American Atheists magazine in which he claims his desciption as a “radical Atheist”. Newspaper and web columns make up the bulk of this section and portray Adams as a visionary, a deep thinker and a playful philosopher. The cornerstone of the section is the reprinted impromptu lecture “Is there an artificial God?”. Extemporaneously delivered and fortuitously recorded, this lengthier piece studies man’s place in the universe thanks to the “four stages of sand” metaphor, tying together an awe-inspiring number of concepts and ideas dear to Douglas. I’m not sure how much of it was truly spontaneous, but it’s an exceptional speech that is well-worth reading. It, fittingly enough, is also widely available on-line.

But the real selling point of The Salmon of Doubt is the last section “and everything”, which bookends eleven reconstructed chapters of Douglas’ last manuscript with a number of bits about his creative process and the short story “Young Zaphod Plays it Safe” (reprinted in some omnibus editions of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) Readers will quibble about the value of the material: I myself was never Dirk Gently’s biggest fan, but the excerpts here were enough to warm me in anticipation for a full novel that will never exist. Which may be the biggest let-down of the whole thing: We’ve been handed the first part of an unfinished novel.

But the rest of the book is no let-down. As an act of posthumous fan plundering, it’s a good and deserving one: Douglas’ memory is well-served by the pieces collected in The Salmon of Doubt, and so will his readers. Enjoy this last trip down the galaxy of Douglas Adams’ imagination.

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.