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Books

Douglas Adams’s big idea

12 March 2013

2:05 PM

12 March 2013

2:05 PM

Had he not died 12 years ago, Douglas Adams would have been 61 yesterday. Google produced a doodle in his memory, and the Guardian published an interesting piece which declared that Adams remains the king of comedy SF, before going on to argue that he was unique, pretty much the only writer in that genre. Take a bow Mr Adams; you’re top of a league of one.

But, in a way, Adams was, or very nearly was, unique. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels are comedies of ideas flavoured with lashings of silliness: the restaurant at the end of the universe and Marvin the Paranoid Android, a robot beset by depression because he never uses his planet-sized brain – how gloriously silly and how very clever. How unique, almost.

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A commenter beneath the Guardian article describes Adams’s work as ‘Monty Python in Space’, which is a neat description, especially as Adams is one of only two people other than the established Pythons to get a writing credit on the show. Sky Arts aired a Python retrospective on Sunday night. It emphasised the Pythons’ comedy of ideas. The Python sketch that sticks in my mind, although I’ve only seen it once, is an inversion of the cliché about the son of a miner becoming an actor. Graham Chapman plays the actor, Terry Jones his wife and Eric Idle their son, who is pursuing a career in mining much to his father’s disgust. There is a double play beyond this simple inversion: Chapman looks and sounds like Walter Morel might in a bad adaptation of Sons and Lovers, while Idle is dandified. Memorable lines include Jones warning Idle: ‘Don’t try him, luv. You know what dad’s like after a few novels’; Idle complaining that Chapman has ‘worn mother out with gala luncheons’, to which Chapman retorts: ‘There’s nowt wrong with gala luncheons, boy!’ and the punch line, delivered by Chapman to Idle: ‘Hampstead weren’t good enough for yer! You had to go poncing off to Barnsley!’

Adams fashioned a similarly irreverent approach to life into a narrative about the biggest ideas of all, as Arthur Dent put it: ‘of Life, the Universe and Everything’. The Hitchhiker books are not solely devoted to grand themes; there are puns, japes and gags to keep the reader honest: ‘Life,’ said Marvin dolefully, ‘loathe it or ignore it, you can’t like it.’ But, take a look at some quotations and bigger pictures emerge:

‘Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.’

‘If there’s anything more important than my ego around, I want it caught and shot now.

‘The major problem — one of the major problems, for there are several — one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them. To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.’

‘The Answer to the Great Question… Of Life, the Universe and Everything… Is… Forty-two,’ said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.’

Adams’s cult success has perplexed some: plenty of other slightly strange books set in Space have bombed. Adams was funny, which helps. But he was also clever, which helps some more. I reckon that timeless Adams will endure even if lunchtime is an illusion.

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