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.

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