Gently does it The Salmon of Doubt Douglas Adams 336 pp, Macmillan James Boswell was taken aback by Samuel Johnson's verdict on Gulliver's Travels: "When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest". So are we - but part of the reason we " re appalled is that while Johnson almost completely misses the point, he has a point. It is about mistrusting fantastic literature's ability to deliver a moral message. Not many people would compare Douglas Adams with Swift, but there are worse ways of spending an afternoon.
Almost the first joke in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is how humans are so backward that "they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea". (This would be about 1978 or so.) Hardly Swift ian saeva indignatio, but you get the picture almost at once. The world is destroyed, as a gag about demolishing homes for bypasses, almost immediately; by the end of the series, 1992's Mostly Harmless, Adams has restored the world only to destroy it again, bitterly. I doubt there is a comedy sci-fi work bleaker than Mostly Harmless. Adams thought so, and one of the many sad aspects of his sudden death last year (a heart attack in a Santa Barbara gym, at the age of 49 - just the kind of throwaway demise he might have handed out to an insignificant, unlikable character of his own invention) is that there will be no upbeat ending to the series. Anyway, think up the title The Hitchhiker's etc, and, as Johnson said, it is very easy to do all the rest.
You will still need a fertile imagination, a fondness for silly names, a thorough grasp of English zaniness from Wodehouse to Python - and, for best results, experience of writing scripts for Doctor Who, which is as sound a grounding in popular British sci-fi as you could wish for. It also stops you taking yourself too seriously. Compare, for instance, the moronic pomposity of th Star Wars films, the first of which came out at around the same time. That Hitchhiker began as a radio series also helped - there hadn't been anything that funny or inventive on the medium since the Goons. As such, the prose versions could never quite match up, although that hasn't stopped Terry Pratchett mining a very similar vein, more exhaustively and lucratively. There was excited speculation that The Salmon of Doubt would contain an unfinished sixth Hitchhiker novel.
The front cover boasts the line "Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time", but it shouldn't. The eponymous unfinished novel it contains is a Dirk Gently novel. Dirk Gently was a character, you felt, whom Adams dreamed up to show that he wasn't a one-trick pony. As such the books were partially successful: a skit on the detective genre as his other work was a skit on the sci-fi genre. Gently runs a holistic detective agency, the idea being not so much to look for clues as to allow them to come to you, the fundamental interconnectedness of the universe meaning that everything that crops up will be relevant. And indeed, in the author's hands, everything is.
But the real skit is on Adams's own beliefs. As the numerous interviews with him reprinted in The Salmon of Doubt attest, Adams was a keen logician, a disciple as well as a friend of Richard Dawkins, and a proselytizing atheist. He was tickled by the coincidence that his initials were DNA, and that he was born in Cambridge five months before Crick and Watson discovered the molecule of the same name. There is an amusing exchange between him and a group with the embattled-sounding name of American Atheists, who ask: "Have you faced any obstacles in your professional life because of your Atheism (bigotry against Atheists), and how did you handle it How often does this happen" The earnest detail of the question suggests that atheist-persecution is a bit of a problem over there. Adams's reply, which it must have been a pleasure to give: "Not even remotely. It's an inconceivable idea".
Yet we remember, from very early on in Hitchhiker, Ool on Colluphid's tetralogy of philosophical blockbusters, Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes, Who Is This God Person Anyway and Well That About Wraps It Up for God. The very terms of the joke suggest a yearning for a meaning, while the Hitchhiker series itself is driven by a quest to meet whoever is in charge of the Galaxy. Its most famous single joke is the one about the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything being 42. The point of the joke being: phrase the question better next time. As is admitted by both Adams and Peter Guzzardi, the editor who put it together, the final Dirk Gently novel collated here doesn't go anywhere. It may or may not have been cannibalized and salvaged for a further Hitchhiker novel.
As it is, Guzzardi has done a good job; Adams's novels, particularly the Dirk Gently ones, always felt a bit cobbled together, however much he tried to close things neatly at the end. The problem is that Gently was suffering from a version of the law of diminishing returns. The conceits of the first two novels - a time-travelling don interrupting Coleridge during the composition of "Kubla Khan" in order to save the world, or Valhalla hiding behind St Pancras station - left little else, particularly if you are, deep down, a rationalist. You will notice that no one ever asked Adams about whether he believed aliens existed or not; the question would be as preposterous as asking PG Wodehouse what he thought about the English class system. Adams was always writing about this world, and if he got sidetracked into sci-fi comedy the joke was always on us. From The Salmon of Doubt: "Time travel...
The evidence is all around us. I'm talking about how every time we make an insurance claim we discover that somehow mysteriously the exact thing we " re claiming for is now precisely excluded from our policy". The single funniest item in the book is an anecdote about a stranger eating his packet of biscuits at a train station, told better here than in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. We learn that the book he was proudest of having written was about earth: Last Chance to See, with Mark Carwardine, on endangered species. And it is indeed his best: imagine Bill Bryson with a point, and a message. This, though, is perforce a book full of bits and bobs (the most obviously poignant inclusion being his introduction to Wodehouse's unfinished Sunset at B landings).
Which is hardly going to offend people who thought, correctly in my opinion, that his collaboration with John Lloyd, The Meaning of Life, was one of the funniest little books ever written. It supplies spoof definitions for words that currently only function as place-names, and should alone seal his reputation as one of the language's great humorists. How can one begrudge him this title after reading his definition of the word "gress" (vb.) (Rare) To stick to the point during a family argument.".