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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Douglas Adams (1952-2001) 


British author and humorist, best known for the comic science-fiction series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979).  Though primarily characterized as a science fiction author, Douglas Adams always insisted  that  he is a "comedy writer" who merely uses "the devices of science fiction to send up everything  else." Basically the series carries on the old tradition of fantastic voyages to other worlds (Lucian's Icaro-Menippus, Cyrano de Bergerac's Other Worlds, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, etc), in which the form serves as a vehicle for satire on contemporary society.

"It's a sort of electronic book. It tells you everything you need to know about anything. That's its job." (in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 1979)

Douglas Noël Adams was born in Cambridge, the son of Christopher Douglas Adams, who had abandoned taking holy orders for teaching, and Janet (Donovan) Adams, a nurse. After his birth, the family moved to London. Adams didn't learn to speak until he was almost four. His parents divorced in 1957, and he moved with his mother and sister to live with his grandmother in Brentwood, Essex. Both of his parents remarried later.  At school Adams excelled in creative writing. He was also much taller than the other children. His first publication was a short story, entitled 'Suspense' (1965), in the popular boys' comic Eagle.

While St. John's College at Cambridge University, Adams became a member of the Footlights Revue Club, an amateur theatrical club run by students, which at one time had included several members of the Monty Python troupe. Upon graduating from Cambridge with a B.A. in literature in 1974, Adams  moved back to London, where worked as a free-lance comedy scriptwriter. He also took on a series of odd jobs.

In 1974 Adams was given the opportunity to write for the fourth series of Monty Python show ('A Doctor Whose Patients Are Stabbed by His Nurse'), and he had two brief appearances on the sceen. Later he said, "I would certainly not lay claim to being a contributory writer for Python because Python was those six guys, and my role was quite incidental and coincidental." With Graham Chapman he wrote sketches for the television show Out of the Trees (1975) and an episode for Doctor on the Go (1977). Adams and Chapman first met at the opening of the West End run of Chox, the Footlights revue.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was originally presented as a 12-part radio series. At the same time when he was writing episodes of Hitchhiker, he worked also as a script editor on Doctor Who TV series, starring Tom Baker as the iconic Doctor. According to Adams, he based the original idea partly on a travel book, the Hitchhiker's Guide to Europe; he had carried a copy of it with him when he traveled around the Continent in the early 1970.  Adams was not keen on science fiction. "I've started most science fiction books but only got about page 10, I'm afraid, usually," he said in an interview. His comic influences in literature were Lewis Carroll and P.G. Wodehouse.

Following the success of the series, Adams was asked by Pan Books to write a novel based on his radio scripts. The book went to the top of the London Times best-seller list. Adams's protagonist is an Englisman named Arthur Dent. When Earth is destroyed by Vogons to make way for a hyperspatial express route, Arthur is saved by his friend, Ford Prefect, an alien who is a contributor to an electronic Baedeker, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy". Readers are also given answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. The answer is 42. (Adams told The Independent in 1996 that he chose the number because he "wanted a nice, ordinary number, one that you wouldn't mind taking home and introducing to your parents.") It has been argued that Lewis Carroll was particularly interested in that number. In the poem 'The Hunting of the Snark', the only  rule quoted is No 42. In addition, there are many open and hidden references to 42 in Alice in Wonderland (The Mystery of Lewis Carroll by Jenny Wolf, 2010, pp. 56-58)

"Some of  us grieved  when Douglas Adams came along  with his Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and grew rich doing the  Sheckleyan  things which appeared to keep Sheckley  poor." (Brian Aldiss & David Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree, 2001, p. 378.) 

Eventually the Hitchhiker saga evolved into a five-novel "trilogy" although after the third installment Adams had got tired of "sitting in the dark room and writing". He moved in 1983 to Los Angeles to work on a film version of the story. The movie was never made and Adams returned to England, feeling that he had hit his first major failure in his career.

With Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987), portraying a private eye, Adams introduced a new angle into the genre of mystery fiction. Dirk Gently, whose real name is Svlad Cjelli, explains that "The term 'holistic' refers to my conviction that what wer are concerned here is the fundamental interconnectedness of all things." He does not eliminate the completely impossible, but accepts ghosts, time travel and aliens as a part of the solution. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has said that it is the only book he has ever read from cover to cover and then again from cover to cover. Dirk Gently also featured in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988). In the middle of a personal crisis, Adams went with the zoologist Mark Carwardine on a journey in search of endangered species. Their research resulted in a BBC radio series and a book entitled Last Chance to Sea (1990). 

Much of his career, Adams suffered from writer's block and frequent crises of confidence. John Lloyd, which whom Adams collaborated on The Meaning of Liff (1983) and The Deeper Meaning of Liff (1990), has recalled that "We were on holiday in Corfu with three friends when he was finishing a book, and he ended up taking over the whole house. He had a room to write in, a room to sleep in, a room to go when he couldn't sleep, and so on. . . . He goes through life with a brain the size of a planet, and often seems to be living on a different one."

Besides books, Adams wrote computer games, created a CD-ROM version of Last Chance to See, and established with a founder of Wired magazine and others a production company, the Digital Village, which produced the DC-ROM Starship Titanic. Terry Jones of the Monty Python team adapted the computer game into a novel and made two introductions for the U.S. paperback edition of The Salmon of Doubt (2002).

Adams once said,  "I have a well-deserved reputation for being something of a gadget freak, and am rarely happier than when spending an entire day programming my computer to perform automatically a task that it would otherwise take me a good 10 seconds to do by hand." After giving up writing books with a typewriter (Hermes Standard 8), Adams became known as an Apple fan. Both Adams and Stephen Fry have claimed to be the first person in Britain to own an Apple Macintosh. An amateur musician, Adams played guitar and piano. Dawkins dedicated his book The God Delusion (2006) to Adams, quoting a line from the Hitchhiker: "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe there are fairies a the bottom of it?" 

Adams was married to Jane Belson; they had one daughter. In 1999 he moved with his family to Santa Barbara, California, partly in order to secure funding for a big-screen adaptation of Hitchhiker's. Adams died of  hear attack on May 11, 2001, in Montecito. Adams's friends Gary Brooker, the leader of Procol Harum, and the Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmous performed at his memorial service. Eventually, in 2005, the long-awaited film version of the book was released. The audience really wanted to love the film, but simply couldn't. "The movie was more of a revue than a narrative, more about moments than an organizing purpose, and cute to the point that I yearned for some corrosive wit from its second cousin, the Monty Python universe." (Roger Ebert, April 28, 2005)

For further reading: '"The Game's Afoot": Predecessors and Pursuits of a Postmodern Detective Novel' by Kathleen Belin Owen, in Theory and Practice of Classic Detective Fiction, edited by Jerome H. Delamater and  Ruth Prigozy  (1997); Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams M. J. Simpson (2003); The Making of The hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: The Filming of the Douglas Adams Classic, edited by Robbie Stamp (2005); 'Counterpointing the Surrealism of the Underlying Metaphor in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' by M.J. Simpson, in British Science Fiction Television: A Hitchhiker's Guide, edited by John R. Cook and Peter Wright (2006); 'Adams, Douglas' in  Encyclopedia of American Popular Fiction by Geoff Hamilton,  Brian Jones (2009); 'Douglas Adams' in Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature, Volume 1, edited by Anne Maria Hacht and Dwayne D. Hayes (2009); Philosophy and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, edited by Nicholas Joss (2012); The Frood: The Authorised and Very Official History of Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Jem Roberts (2014)

Selected works:

  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 1979
    - Linnunradan käsikirja liftareille (suom. Pekka Markkula, 1981)
  • The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, 1980
    - Maailmanlopun ravintola (suom. Jukka Saarikivi, 1990)
  • Not 1982: Not the Nine O'Clock News rip-off Annual, 1981 (written by Douglas Adams et al.)
  • Life, the Universe and Everything, 1982
    - Elämä, maailmankaikkeus - ja kaikki (suom. Jukka Saarikivi, 1991)
  • The Meaning of Liff, 1983 (with John Lloyd)
    - Elimäen tarkoitus (suomeksi kirjoittaneet: Silja Hiidenheimo . . . ja muita, 1996)
  • So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, 1984
    - Terve, ja kiitos kaloista (suom. Jukka Saarikivi, 1993)
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: The Original Radio Scripts, 1985 (rev. edn 2003; ed. Geoffrey Perkins)  
  • The Utterly Utterly Merry Comic Relief Christmas Book, 1986 (by Douglas Adams et al.)
  • Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, 1987
    - Dirk Gentlyn holistinen etsivätoimisto (suom. Hilkka Pekkanen, 1989)
  • The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, 1988
    - Sielun pitkä pimeä teehetki (suom. Jukka Saarikivi, 2002)
  • The Deeper Meaning of Liff, 1990 (with John Lloyd)
    - Elimäen perimmäinen tarkoitus (suomeksi kirjoittaneet Silja Hiidenheimo ym., 1997)
  • Last Chance to See, 1990 (with Mark Carwardine)
  • Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - A Trilogy in Four Parts, 1992
  • Mostly Harmless, 1992
    - Enimmäkseen harmiton (suom. Jukka Saarikivi, 1994)
  • The Illustrated Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 1994
  • Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - A Trilogy in Five Parts, 1995 
  • The Dirk Gently Omnibus, 2001
  • Parrots, the Universe and Everything, 2001
  • The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time, 2002
  • The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy: The Nearly Definitive Edition, 2014 (introduced by Richard Dawkins and Nick Harkaway)  
  • Douglas Adams: A Little Book of Selected Quotes on Life, Humor, and the Galaxy, 2021

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