The irony of Douglas Adams’s death would not have slipped past the famed comedic writer. He died Friday, May 11, at his home in Santa Barbara, Calif., from a heart attack while working out at a gym. The circumstances of his passing read like a scene from one of his many, hysterical novels, although clearly the loss of such a magnificently cunning mind elicits not the slightest chuckle. He was only 49.
Douglas Noel Adams was born in Cambridge, England, in 1952. The son of a theology student and a nurse, Adams attended St John’s College of Cambridge University, the alma mater of many other comedic geniuses, including John Cleese, Dudley Moore, Graham Chapman, and Peter Cook. There he began collaborating with folks who would go on to create Not the Nine O’Clock News and Monty Python’s Flying Circus (for which he helped pen a few season-four sketches). After graduation, he tried his hand at writing for television, working on the now-classic Dr Who series. After running into some financial difficulty, he began working as a bodyguard for an Arabian royal family. Not as fulfilling a vocation, certainly, which is why he spent his off-hours penning the tale that would make him famous.
The tale in question, and the creation Adams is perhaps best known for, is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a story which originally started as a BBC radio series in 1978. It later was released as a book and then made into a BBC television miniseries. The story begins on a seemingly average Thursday average until a fleet of cantankerous aliens arrives to raze Earth in order to make way for a new intergalactic hyperspace bypass. Arthur Dent, who’s already had a bad enough day trying to prevent his house from getting demolished, barely escapes with the help of his alien friend, Ford Prefect. The two go on an epic adventure across the universe, meeting a vast array of eclectic and mind-bending creatures. It’s nearly impossible to condense the plot of the entire “five-part trilogy” (which includes The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life, the Universe and Everything, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, and Mostly Harmless), but it involves the discovery of the Earth’s origins, “God’s Final Message to His Creation,” and the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. The answer, of course, is 42.
Such non sequitur is typical of Adams’s writing, which often jumps off into extremely long tangents to describe a seemingly trivial affair or raise points that breach the philosophical in their irrationality and wit. Such quotations as “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable in their apparent disinclination to do so” are riddled throughout his works, revealing a mind that had an amazing ability to place a unique perspective on weighty matters while maintaining a tone of absolute lightheartedness. Passages from the Hitchhiker’s Guide (emblazoned with the most pertinent piece of advice ever: “Don’t Panic”) place more emphasis on where to get a good drink than on dry explications of alien worlds. “Mostly Harmless,” in fact, makes up the entire entry in the Guide describing Earth. Adams was one person who could see the big picture and realize how terribly bland a sight it was. Reading him is like stepping into a giant Zen koan. If you’re not laughing after the first few pages, you should probably make an appointment with your optometrist.
Adams’s humor, however, was complemented by his very serious efforts to raise awareness regarding endangered species and the environment. Last Chance to See, which he wrote with zoologist and photographer Mark Carwardine, is a picture book that addresses the absurdities of earthly life while travelling the world in search of animals on the brink of extinction. Other works by Adams include the linguistic farce The Meaning of Liff (with John Lloyd), the comical crime series comprising Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, and a number of computer games under his multimedia company The Digital Village, most notably The Starship Titanic. Hitchhiker’s is currently in production as a motion picture by Disney, for which Adams wrote the script.
There really are no words to express what a loss Adams’s passing is to the world’s funny bone. He was by far the premier comedic writer and an all-around good and socially conscious human being. He would not want his fans to grieve over his death (well, maybe just a little bit) there’s enough grief in the world as it is. Instead, in his honor, make a friend or coworker laugh, tell a joke, try to save a dolphin or two, throw away your digital watch, and no matter where you are, always remember to bring a towel.