Hodder & Stoughton, 2003, 393 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-340-82766-1
Douglas Adams, author of the mega-selling Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, died in early 2001. As the publishing industry turns, the arrival of at least one posthumous biography could be expected by 2003. The surprise was that there would be two of them: An official biography written by one of his editors (Nick Webb’s Wish You Were Here) and another, unofficial one, written by the ex-president of his fan club. (M.J. Simpson’s Hitchhiker) As a critic, the temptation was irresistible to re-read the two book in light of the HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY video release, with a two-year buffer to check the reception of both books.
Unusually enough, even a casual Internet search shows that the appearance of two biographies within months of each other wasn’t completely unexpected by the authors. They apparently decided, early on, to focus on different aspects of Adams’ life: Webb on Adams’ life and Simpson on Adams’ work. As you can expect, this doesn’t completely remove all duplication, but it means that you can read both books and find something of value in each.
If there’s one recommendation to make before delving too deep in either biography, it’s that Douglas’ work is an essential prerequisite. Don’t assume you’ll be fine because you’ve read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ten years ago: Douglas only published nine books, and given his fabled tendency to procrastinate, every one of them is important. The “Dirk Gently” duology is important. The Meaning of Liff is important. Last Chance to See is very important. Heck, The Salmon of Doubt is especially important given the wealth of background material information contained therein. Additionally, you may want to beg, steal or borrow a copy of Neil Gaiman’s Don’t Panic! (as revised by Simpson) before attempting Simpson’s book, as he makes clear in his introduction that he tried to avoid duplicating anecdotes. (Granted, you should also read Douglas’ work on its own merit, but I’m trying to be helpful, here.)
Douglas was a complex individual, brilliant and quirky, sometimes genius-level and sometime of an astonishing naiveté. Both biographies do a good job at trying to illustrate what was Douglas’ essence and of the two, Wish You Were Here comes perhaps closest, informed as it was by all-access interviews with Douglas’ friends and family. Simpson’s Hitchhiker, on the other hand, takes a decidedly more sceptical stance toward Douglas’ stories given his gift for self-aggrandizement. The whole “I first imagined a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy while lying drunk in a field in Innsbruck” story, for instance, is debunked late in Hitchhiker, after several other stories (including the Forbidden Planet “so many people mobbed the store I nearly didn’t make it to the signing” story.) are similarly questioned. As per the Webb-Simpson agreement, Hitchhiker is also more satisfying from a critical viewpoint, as Simpson spends more time covering the strengths and weaknesses of Douglas’s work, as well as why it’s so appealing to so many people.
Writing-wise, Webb sometime makes a valiant attempt at writing a book in the style of Douglas, and if it doesn’t always succeeds (some diversions, such as the take-off on left-handedness, are more distracting that helpful), it makes for a more interesting reading experience than Simpson’s workmanlike prose. On the other hand, Wish You Were Here sometimes offer too much information, while Hitchhiker is more to the point.
Ultimately, I find myself unwilling to recommend either book at the exclusion of another. As with most people, Douglas Adams is too complex for a single interpretation. While Webb and Simpson don’t offer very different views, there are facets covered in one work that aren’t covered in the other. Read both in close succession (preferably right after The Salmon of Doubt, which could be called Douglas’ own fragmented autobiography) and you’ll get the idea.