Like most fans, I had first become aware of Douglas Adams through his work on the marvelous BBC radio series, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, an epic saga that swept the breadth of the galaxy and introduced exciting new concepts to the worlds of science fiction. Oh yeah, and it was also mind-numbingly funny.
Adams recalled “I was hitchhiking around Europe in 1971, when I was 18, with this copy of ‘A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe.’™ At one point, I found myself lying in the middle of a field, a little bit drunk, when it occurred to me that somebody should write a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It didnt occur to me that it might actually be me years later.”
What was so utterly marvelous about the series was the seamless blending of original science fiction and comedy. It begins, if you do not already know, with the destruction of Earth to make way for an intergalactic bypass (“we apologize for the inconvenience“). The sole apparent survivor of that calamity is the hapless Arthur Dent, who finds himself being bounced around the universe in the company of the refugee President of the Galaxy, one Zaphod Beeblebrox, in a stolen prototype spaceship powered by the Infinite Improbability Drive. (Dent meets up with this unlikely pair after he is pushed out of the airlock of an alien ship into deep space and is immediately picked up by the passing starship. “That’s impossible!” he exclaims. “No,” answers his traveling companion, “just highly improbable.”)
We later find out that, just before it is destroyed, all the dolphins depart Earth to return to their home in the stars, leaving a final message for all mankind: “So long, and thanks for all the fish”.
Other favorite concepts: the Babel fish, which, when dropped in one’s ear, instantly allows one to understand any spoken language, thereby disproving the existence of God. And a cloaking device called an SEP field (for Somebody Else’s Problem) which allows aliens to park a massive spaceship unnoticed onto a soccer field in the middle of a game because it’s Somebody Else’s Problem.
I adored The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy on every level: as comedy, it was hilarious and highly original; as science fiction, it introduced imaginative concepts that stretched the boundaries of the fantastic. Best of all, it was a radio play. I love radio! I have distinct memories of being ten years old and lying awake at night in the dark listening to a station out of San Francisco that played old radio dramas and comedies.
When I first heard THGTTG, I wanted to be Douglas Adams. The radio series spawned a book which sold 14 million copies, followed by several sequels, a second radio series, a TV series, and a feature film currently in the planning stages.
I only met Douglas Adams once. In 1992, I found myself winging to the sunny confines of Southern California to attend an industry book fair, clutching a hardcover copy of his newest book.
The highlight of that book fair was to hear Douglas Adams speak. I wish I could remember more of what he said; I remember a ripping lampoon of the publishing industry and a hilarious tale of spending 90 minutes creating a macro in a word processing program to save himself about three seconds of work.
After he spoke, I abashedly approached his lunch table and asked if he would mind signing my book. In 1990, Douglas had teamed up with zoologist and photographer Mark Carwardine and set off around the world in search of the rarest and most endangered animals on Earth. From that experience came the book and series Last Chance To See. When he saw what I was carrying, he proclaimed that this was the work of which he was most singularly proud and proceeded to talk to me for several minutes. I had to rush back to my table to wolf down the remainder of my lunch, but it was completely worth it. I found him personally engaging, endlessly witty, and sincerely warm.
Douglas Adams died unexpectedly of a heart attack on May 12 at age 49. I am sorry that I will never have a second chance to engage him in conversation, and I know I am joining in a chorus of voices from around the globe when I wish him well on his own journey to his home in the stars.
So long, Douglas … and thanks for all the laughs.