Books

Rediscovering DNA

Patrick Schabe

As the big screen adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy hits theaters, Patrick Schabe takes a look back at the life and work of its iconic creator, Douglas Adams.

PopMatters Music Reviews Editor

In 1952, Cambridge, England, (a town in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy) saw two DNAs brought into the world. The more famous of the two was the deoxyribonucleic acid whose structure was uncovered by Watson and Crick, a discovery that changed science and the way we understand the world forever. The second DNA was an ape-descended life form named Douglas Noel Adams. And in time he would change science fiction and the way we look at our place in the universe.

This year sees the countless-times delayed release of the film adaptation of Adams's most enduring legacy, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. While the film is merely another step in the nearly 30-year evolution of this story, its release is both bittersweet and instructive. When Adams suddenly and shockingly died on May 11, 2001, he left behind a wealth of unfinished business, among it the screenplay for this film, which he was in the process of revising for the umpteenth time. He was also working on a manuscript which might have become the sixth installment of the at-that-point ludicrously inaccurately titled Hitchhiker's "trilogy". But the body of work that Adams left behind gives much insight into Adams the Man, and allows us to really take stock of what the world gained from his life (and prematurely lost in his death).

Using Hitchhiker's as a guide to Adams, it should come as no surprise that he spent much of his final years in a pursuit of knowledge and ideas in the service of science. Just as Hitchhiker's was a story constantly changing and evolving -- beginning as a radio show on the BBC and rapidly mutating in a series of books, theatrical productions, television shows, albums, video games, comic books (and even a towel) -- Adams spent much time in his last years advocating principles of ecology and evolution in his work with and support of good friend and eminent evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins. He also invested his time and money in his nearly reverent love of computers and the promise of information technology, helping to create an Earthbound version of the Hitchhiker's Guide online at h2g2.com. And where Hitchhiker's began life as a humorous concept about a show where the Earth blows up for different reasons each week, Arthur Dent's trials as the last human male in existence in a displaced universe grew increasingly sobering and sympathetic. So it's hardly uncharacteristic that Adams spent a year traveling the world with zoologist Mark Carwardine, tracking down and recording the tenuous existence of some of the planet's endangered species, resulting in the non-fiction book (and radio series) Last Chance to See. Once he even joined a team that climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in a rhinoceros suit to drum up media attention for Save the Rhino. That's the kind of guy he was.

The happy ending is that there's always a second chance for Adams's audiences -- a way to rediscover his work. For most, the initial exposure to Adams is either the want of a light sci-fi diversion or a quest for humor. But within the confines of the Hitchhiker's books lies so much more: there is a treasure trove of insights into the human experience itself waiting to be uncovered. Of course, much of the time these insights are couched in wry wit and disguised as the work of aliens. Sometimes mice.

Like many Americans, my first exposure to Hitchhiker's came as a reader. The BBC television adaptation was an on-again off-again affair on PBS, but it was the books that were my first love. Like many in the States, I wasn't even aware of their radio origins. I plowed through the first four novels as a young teen (admittedly, probably only understanding a minor percentage of the jokes), as well as spending time at a friend's house struggling through the Infocom text adventure game, laughing at Zaphod's horribly fake second head when I finally did watch the television version, and then eagerly devouring the two Dirk Gently books when they arrived. I counted myself a fan, but even after the release of Mostly Harmless I mainly thought of Douglas Adams as clever and funny. When his death was announced, I was stunned and saddened, but I erroneously thought of it as the end of the story.

However, about a year later, my wife landed a job that required her to spend long hours traveling by car. To keep herself entertained during the drives, she developed a taste for audio books. To our mutual delight, we discovered that the rental store carried a complete collection of Adams's books, unabridged on CD, read by Adams himself. (Now sadly out of print.)

There's something otherworldly and gut-wrenching hearing the Hitchhiker's series read aloud in Adams's own voice, and it goes beyond the experience Zaphod has with Pizpot Gargravarr on Frogstar B. Adams was a comedy troupe performer on stage in college before he decided to focus on writing, and he brings a depth of characterization to his voiceover (though certainly influenced by the radio performances with which he worked closely). But beyond that ability to really read well, hearing his pacing and delivery in the manner in which the story unfolded in his own authorial head imbues the language with a rich complexity far beyond comedy. It clearly comes through the speakers that each word was carefully chosen, and that Adams used his considerable vocabulary with precise, meticulous, even compulsive skill.

Moreover, the stories become more than a collection of misfit characters having misadventures in an absurd universe. Despite the plentiful comic elements, Adams always tackled larger themes and complex metaphysics, and even in alien landscapes, the particular failures and foibles of his pantheon were always recognizably human. Adams noted, "...anything that relies on how a person works is universally accessible." (Neil Gaiman, Don't Panic [2003 edition]). Greed, envy, sloth, fame, self-absorption, capitalism run rampant, and most especially bureaucracy -- the Hitchhiker's books hold up a mirror to our own existence in spite of the targets of its satire being worlds away. Adams once noted:

Although Hitchhiker's doesn't have any real political significance, there is a theme there of the ubiquity of bureaucracy and paranoia rampant throughout the universe.... the world of Hitchhiker's is based outside the 'Real World' while still co-existing with it. It's like looking at events through the wrong end of a telescope.
And just as Arthur Dent starts out his literary life as a hapless Everyman, by the time his adventures come to a close, he has become something far more: changed irrevocably, he is unique voice of perspective and almost sanguine in his understanding of what truly matters in life.

Perhaps the ultimate expression of Adams's importance as an author and an icon, or even just as mere human, is found in The Salmon of Doubt, the posthumous collection of his final scraps of fiction, essays, articles, and notes. Those bits and clips are alone a picture of lost genius, but it's the memorial tribute pieces that seal the deal. Despite the reported difficulties of being Adams's friend and colleague -- his notorious inability to meet a deadline, his moodiness, his desire for total creative control of his ideas -- he touched a great many people's lives and was widely regarded as a man of brilliant insights and equally generous heart. The recorded comments and memorial tributes on the audio version of Salmon of Doubt are utterly, crushingly sad, and confirm that his death was as disorienting as the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Whether or not the film "does justice" to the Hitchhiker's series is immeasurable and irrelevant. Immeasurable because the story itself has changed with every medium its been presented in, and will likely do so once more (Adams himself stated that the screenplay would definitely include things not found in the books). Besides which, given the fact that Adams chronically hated most of what he'd written as soon as it was finished, he likely would have had some dissatisfaction with the film regardless of the result. But more importantly, it's an irrelevant question because the film affords a much greater opportunity to revisit the works and life of Douglas Adams and discover him anew. Adams's spirit and legacy will be kept alive and revisited long after his death, and the more people that take a closer look, the more obvious it becomes that his status should be upgraded from cult to classic.

With so much left unfinished at the time of his death, Adams might have enjoyed the irony that one of his professed favorite passages from all that he had written included God's Final Message. But, like his deoxyribonucleic namesake, he has ensured that his spirit lives on in his work, and that's no inconvenience at all.

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