A few years ago, I attended a course on the wisdom books of the Bible. It was one of those gorgeous new British Columbia spring days that turns normal powers of concentration to mush, and class, consequently, was not going well.
The professor was struggling to keep our attention and to avoid being diverted down too many unproductive rabbit trails. The students, in turn, kept trying to throw him off of the prepared lesson. The idea was to postpone discussion of any material that could be tested until we were in a better frame of mind. Late in class, one student asked a particularly nettlesome question. The instructor answered by issuing a string of hypothetical, queries, the last of which he emphasized by throwing up his hands: "What is the meaning of life?"
"Forty-two!" shouted someone in the back. I noted quite a few knowing grins, but most students responded with curious looks. What was the idea, they must have wondered, of responding to an existential question as if it were an algebraic equation?
The disparate reactions in the classroom to the gag point to an undeniable fact about Douglas Adams' readership in North America. It may have been a large cult following, but it was a cult following nonetheless. With the five part Hitchhiker "trilogy" and radio series, the two Dirk Gently novels, various journalistic dabblings and multimedia projects (such as the Starship Titanic computer game), Adams failed to make a serious impression on the non-British English speaking readers who accounted for the bulk of his book sales.
Whatever its stated goals The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time is a blatant attempt by close friends and fans to try to upgrade the writer's status a year after Adams' unexpected fatal heart attack at the young age of 49. This is, perhaps, an admirable goal, but they go about it exactly the wrong way.
Three prologues¨technically, an "editor's note", a "prologue", and an "introduction"¨and an epilogue by Oxford University's Richard Dawkins sandwich a smattering of essays, interviews with Adams, short sketches, along with the attempted salvage job of his final novel-in-progress The Salmon of Doubt. The whole package has the feeling of a teenage boy playing one of his favorite records for you while he bites his nails in the hope that you'll "get it."
Thus, The Guardian's Nicholas Wroe tells us that there are "serious themes within [Adams'] work." In fact, "The second Dirk Gently novel [The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul] can easily be read as being about people who are homeless, displaced, and alienated from society." Adams's longtime British editor, Sue Firestone, chimes in that social criticism in his works "is usually buried by the comedy, but it's there if you want to find it."
Adams' role as a worldly Man of Causes is also overplayed. Essays are included that underscore his commitment to saving the rhinos of Kenya and respecting the manta rays of Australia. An interview with The American Atheist confirms his un-conversion from Anglicanism, and a brief Q and A underscore his enthusiasm for sociobiology in general and Richard Dawkins in particular (thus the epilogue). Adams himself is quoted damning dams and saying that Last Chance to See, a book on endangered species co-written with zoologist Mark Carwardine was, professionally speaking, "the thing I am most proud of."
That's all well and good but, given his publishing history, what was Adams supposed to finger as a source of personal pride? The Restaurant at the End of the Universe for the bit about the cattle genetically engineered to voluntarily commit suicide so that no one would have qualms about the morality of butchering animals? The Meaning of Liff for assigning a name to that drop of sweat that accumulates between the cheeks of one's bottom? The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for explaining the clear-cut answer to the Ultimate Question in precise, incomprehensible mathematical terms?
Though the fans behind this volume want to paint Adams retroactively as a novelist of ideas, his whole approach to, well, life, the universe, and everything argues against this interpretation. In one of the interviews contained herein, Adams disavows any intent to create "art," which he sees as detrimental to creativity and fun.
Certainly Adams's yarns are packed full of ideas, but his use of them differs from that of a serious novelist. They set up gags, propel the story forward, and spread a sort of geeky fan-pleasing veneer over his stories. One doubts that one single idea could be tugged at to constitute a single thread running through the Dirk Gently books, let alone the Hitchhiker series. To look to either set of books for serious social criticism is to do them a disservice.
None of the above should be taken to mean that Adams was bereft of ideas, convictions, or taste. I find his thoughts on the future of the computer to be fascinating and his deeply felt environmentalism was more of a piece with Wired magazine than the Club of Rome. Though his atheism could be off-putting, he wasn't a bigot. One of his confessed favorite pieces of music was Bach's mass in B-minor, which could still move him to tears right up until his untimely death.
But Adams didn't suffer from the conceit that people were reading his books because of his ideology and so, for the most part, checked it at the door. The Hitchhiker series, the thing that he should have been most proud of, is a genuinely odd, quirky, masterpiece. The comic timing is impeccable. The characters are memorable: from the (literally) two faced Zaphod Beeblebrox, scoundrel president-of-the-universe-cum-fugitive, to aptly named long-suffering Arthur Dent, to intergalactic towel wielding encyclopaedia writer Ford Prefect. And the situations and gags (see 42 above) are the product of an utterly unique mind.
In his last years, Adams tried to attract a larger audience not by selling himself as a serious writer but by taking it to the masses in the form of a massive Disney Hitchhikers movie. He campaigned for this tirelessly¨one of the funniest bits in the book is a letter to a Disney exec, including over thirty numbers at which he could be reached¨and at the time of his death was convinced that the movie was going to be made.
Adams's loyal fans with a more populist bent have since started "keep the Hitchhikers movie alive" Internet petitions, asking Disney to please get on with it and let the world see what it has been missing. Their efforts may seem futile at this point or even foolish but their strategy is more likely to succeed than that of the collaborators who are responsible for The Salmon of Doubt. ˛
Jeremy Lott is the production director for The Report, an Alberta-based magazine of news and opinion.