Sunday, September 13, 2009

Book Review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

"Far out, in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy, lies a small, unregarded yellow sun," Dougals Adams' first novel opens. "Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea," it goes on, while it dawns on the reader that hey, he's talking about the Earth, and he's also talking about us.

It might also dawn on some of the more particular kinds of readers who have backgrounds in astronomy that Adams' calculations of distance are a bit off. But this is not really that big of a deal.

The tone suggests a disdain for the Earth and its inhabitants, to be sure. And it is possible that Douglas Adams himself harbored some disdain at the time it was written, a year or so prior to the publication of the book. But you have to remember that, at the time, he was a struggling writer/performer trying very hard to become the next John Cleese, but he wasn't very good at being John Cleese. So when this opening was written, for a radio series tentatively titled "The Ends of the Earth" he was feeling a little down-trodden. But the radio series, and subsequently the book, were set to change and define his life and career forever.

The book opens with an outsider's introduction to Earth, where we find Arthur Dent, a human who is unaware that his home is about to be demolished to make way for a new bypass. This action, taken by the English government, is mirrored by the fact that the galactic government, unbeknownst to the people of Earth, have made a similar decision about Earth. Enter Ford Prefect (a name which American readers may not get, because the Ford Prefect is a car that was never sold in the United States, but imagine that the name is Ford Focus and you'll get the joke made part way through the first couple chapters), an alien researcher for a guide book for interstellar travelers titled, interestingly enough, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. He saves Arthur from the destruction of Earth and together, they go on an adventure across the stars.

Basically, this book is a buddy comedy about two galactic travellers, one of whom is very much in his element in space and the other who is not. Together they meet a slew of sci-fi heroes and villans while travelling to strange new worlds in very fast spaceships with technology Arther Dent has never dreamed of.

It sounds pretty cut and dried, but Douglas Adams does several things with this book which turn the whole genre on its head. To begin with, the novel opens where so many science fiction stories end (or at least threaten to end), with the destruction of the Earth. The first villains Arthur and Ford meet are not fierce evil warriors (like Star Trek's Klingons) or heavy-handed fascists (like the Empire in Star Wars) but a race of beauracrats; a branch of the galactic democratic government that takes care of making sure all the permits are in place before beginning construction of a new bypass.

This is why Douglas Adams' work is so groundbreaking. Like so much art he's holding a mirror up to reality, but in this case the mirror is a fun-house mirror with stars and spaceships in it.

The problem with the novel, though, is that while it's hilarious and thought-provoking on subjects such as God and the human condition, our main character is a person who actually does very little in the course of the story. Things happen to him or, more frequently, to the characters around him while he observes, the quintessential fish-out-of-water. The action is driven mainly by Zaphod Beeblebrox, a character identified as the former president of the galaxy who spends the novel searching for a mystical planet without any motive. His motivation, or lack thereof, is explored but never explained.

Another problem with the novel has to do with that introductory line, calling Earth utterly insignificant. It is revealed that the Earth is, in fact, a very significant planet in its own right, so significant that it is being reconstructed (that is right, reconstructed) by a race of people who originally built it as a computer with the job of calculating the missing piece to the meaning of life (having already learned the answer from a previous computer, they must build a second to calculate the question). So the Earth is very significant, but the question, or the answer depending on which way you look at it, is not resolved when you turn the back cover.

The saving grace of this, though, is that the book is based on a radio series, and the book itself only covers a part of the series. And the last line of the book indicates that there will be a second (and luckily, there is) which may resolve these issues (unluckily, it won't).

The book is full of pieces of wisdom that are both funny and accurate. "Time is an illusion," Ford Prefect tells Arthur Dent over three pints of beer apiece at noon, "lunchtime doubly so." A passage about the psychological advantage of owning a towel shows the genius of the writer at work. It is truly a sad fact that this writer was not more prolific in his too-short life. Reading this will show you just how much the world may have been robbed of.

You can find this book at any major bookseller or online. For the actual Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, please contact Megadodo Publications of Ursa Minor Beta in person by hitching a lift on the next passing spaceship. Don't forget your towel.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

I Know Where My Towel Is

Warning: The post you are about to read is long, rambling, and certain to take up way more of your time than you currently have budgeted for reading this blog. You might want to tackle this one in spurts. And you're probably going to need a cup of coffee while you're at it. And a donut. In fact, get me a donut, too. Thanks.

I am going to broach a subject that I'm pretty sure I have never broached before on this platform, possibly because it seemed so redundant to anyone who knows me to for me to speak on this subject, but also because...well, no I don't really know why at all. I just, for some reason, haven't talked about this on the blog yet and I feel that, what with certain things currently in the works in the wide world outside of my own writing, I thought now is as good a time as any to do so.

What I am gradually coming to the point of is this: DNA. Not DNA as in Deoxyribonucleic acid but DNA as in Douglas Noel Adams, British humourist, scriptwriter, performer, environmentalist, atheist, tech-head, and (both most importantly and least effectively) author. I'll clarify that in a moment. This man's work has had a profound effect on my life, my sensibilities, my thoughts, and my early approach to writing. And though I have read many many books that are technically, verbally, artistically and generally better than his books, no book will ever supplant the Great Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as the crown jewel of my book collection.

When I was in fourth grade, I had this amazing teacher named Mrs. McFadden. In fact, as recently as the year before she had been Ms. Derby (which is how I knew her anyway, because my sister had, three years before me, sat in Ms. Derby's classroom on a daily basis) but had, as many women see fit to do (thankfully my wife included, otherwise I'd likely be a shiftless bum) gotten married to a rather sensible gentleman by the name of Mr. McFadden (I am basing my assessment of his sensibility solely on the fact that he asked Ms. Derby n/k/a Mrs. McFadden to marry him). This is not the point of the story. I shall return to the beginning.

When I was in fourth grade, I had this amazing teacher named Mrs. McFadden, who had, three years previous and under her unmarried name of Ms. Derby, taught my sister in fourth grade. It was sheer luck I got her as my teacher, as there were four teachers for each grade at my elementary school (I think that's right, but it has been a number of years) and there was no system whereby you could request specific teachers (but I think if a parent asked gently enough, it could only help, which I think is why the next year, in fifth grade, I avoided a disaster my sister was not so lucky to have missed), but having seen how wonderful Ms. Derby was for my sister, my parents were thrilled for me to have Mrs. McFadden. I guess the general thought was that having gotten married would not negatively affect her teaching ability. And, thankfully, it didn't. She recognized my sense of humour, my (not to toot my own horn here) intelligence, and my skills with words. She was the first teacher I remember truly encouraging me to explore creative writing. But what was cool, looking back, was the way in which she encouraged it. She encouraged me not just to write, but also to read, which is a doctrine that each and every writing teacher I've had at any level of creative writing since has preached.

I had always been an avid reader, and had many times put pen (or, I guess back then, #2 pencil) to (wide-ruled loose leaf) paper. I was even, during fourth grade, in the midst of writing a comic book (based on the adventures of my stuffed animals) as well as a novel (called "Aliens In The Backyard") about a group of kids who get abducted by aliens in an attempt to better understand humans' fascination with baseball. These are the things I would work on when we'd have a free period, or when recess was confined to the classroom due to inclement weather. Both of these pursuits were grounded in material I was reading, not for class but for personal pleasure. I was reading a lot of Calvin and Hobbes (perhaps a precursor to my college days, when I took a philosophy class and read several treatises by Calvin and Hobbes?) and also the My Teacher is an Alien series. You can see how easily it was for me to write in such a genre if I was so immersed in it.

There was only one problem with my comic strip, just a tiny little one; I couldn't draw a straight line unless I were trying to draw a curved or squiggly one, and that was just the beginning of my drawing problems. Let's face it; while my wife and I are both artists, only one of us can draw, and it's not the one who's words you are reading right now (unless, at that moment, you got an e-mail from her or read one of her comments or something). And the problem with my novel was that I was ten, and had no idea how to structure a story, really. There were all kinds of POV shifts and narrative lapses and tense shifts and (as I recall I agonized over this) even an inclusion of the word dammit, which I remember at the time made me blush just to type (and, shit, now would ya fuckin' look at this damn mess?) and which I'm pretty sure I eventually removed thinking it was too risky.

Amidst all of this, though, Mrs. McFadden (ah, you thought I'd forgotten about her all ready, I'll bet) kept encouraging me to write, to draw (though once she actually saw my drawings, I think she mostly encouraged me to write), and to read, and to listen to the things happening around me. And she let me borrow a set of tapes.

These tapes were my introduction to the world of Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian, Marvin the Paranoid Android, a rather large sperm whale and a bowl of petunias. These tapes were a recording of that wholly remarkable radio series about a wholly remarkable book which was eventually then turned into a wholly remarkable book based on the radio series about a wholly remarkable book, all of which shared the same title of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

At this point, let me interject more relevant past; I can remember staying up late and sneaking halfway down the stairs (and often getting caught doing so) trying to catch snippets of Doctor Who, which my parents used to watch on PBS. And in my household, Saturday nights were held sacred in that we would sit in the living room with popcorn and soda and watch the newest episode of Star Trek. The relevance of these points are as follows: 1) Being an avid Star Trek fan meant I had a foothold on the general world of science fiction (and, trust me, I grew up in the 80's and had every intention of becoming a Jedi someday) and 2) Even though I was little and didn't understand why it was funny, I understood that Doctor Who was funny in a particularly different way than most funny television I was familiar with was funny. And it wasn't just their funny accents. Also, Douglas Adams wrote scripts and was for a time the script editor for Doctor Who in 1979). Okay, background info to the background info done.

I took these tapes home and decided it would be a good idea to play them on my boom box while I tried to fall asleep (at this time, due to construction at my house, I was without a room of my own and was sleeping on the futon in the living room, so I had to keep the radio low) but this was clearly a mistake. I couldn't stop listening to it, it was that good. And it was so funny, I couldn't stop laughing. I would have to corroborate this story with my parents, but I am fairly sure I woke them up with my laughing. I finished the set of tapes Mrs. McFadden had given me and started them over. And again. In fact, I'd probably still be doing that if, after three weeks, she hadn't said, "Elliot, have you finished with them? I've got other things I wish to share with you."

I returned them, but told her she had to let other kids listen to them. She agreed, but warned me that not everybody would like it as much as I did. I picked out three friends I thought would get it (all of whom, by the way, did like it as much as I did) and she gave me-gasp of gasps-another set of tapes, these bearing the title The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. It was more of the same, and three weeks later she had to ask for them back again.

This patter continued throughout the year, though sadly no more Douglas Adams was forthcoming. I did not see the books in fourth grade (I think Mrs. McFadden thought, quite rightly, that perhaps the books were a bit more mature than the radio show, which was all ready pushing it for a fourth grader). I remember reading The Phantom Tollbooth at her suggestion, but sadly I can't think of any more books she suggested I read. I know I read them all, but it was, as I said, many years ago.

Fast forward several years to seventh grade; I'm older, much less wise though I think I know everything, and I'm perusing the bookshelf in my English teacher's classroom when I happen upon something that jolts my memory.

It had been three years since I had seen the title, and I remembered it mostly as a tape recording, so to find it on the shelf was exciting. I pulled it off. It was a very dog-eared copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It was held together with tape and looked like it had actually seen the galaxy. I started reading it. I read it twice, three times. My English teacher (Mr. Eckert, I believe) told me to take it home, that he had his own copies at home and anyway the only books in the series he had left in the classroom were the first and the fourth and I might as well take that one, too.

Wait...the...the fourth? There are more of these books out there? I embarked on a quest (after gathering up the fourth book, entitled So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish) to find all of the books. I even read the fourth one before acquiring the second and third, in the interest of reading something, anything, by Douglas Adams that I hadn't read before. I began collecting.

At it's height, I had, decidedly, too many Douglas Adams Hitchhiker books. I had the original dog-eared copy of book one I had taken from Mr. Eckert's class room, as well as the even more dilapidated book four. I had a mass market paperback set of books one through four (the fourth being identical in cover to the fourth I all ready had, the first being very different and in fact containing several typos and omissions which, I found out in much later research, resulted from the fact that the copy I had originally was a British pressing and the second one I got an American pressing of the third run, after which they finally stopped editing out all the British references they thought Americans were too dumb to get...for instance, in the American version there is a reference to a "crosswalk" while in the British version it was a "Zebra Crossing." Apparently, the American publisher thought American readers would think it was a street crossing specifically for Zebras). I had a trade paperback version of the fifth book. I had an over sized "illustrated" version of book one as well (mainly illustrated with photographs and computer-rendered landscapes, and it was quite beautiful really). I had a cloth-hardbound omnibus edition with an introduction from the author himself and an extra short story between books four and five. But that wasn't all. I obtained copies of some of DNA's other works, notably both of his Dirk Gently novels and also a strange book called Starship Titanic which was actually written by Footlighter and Monty Python alumn Terry Jones (the novel is billed as "Douglas Adams' Starship Titanic; a Novel by Terry Jones" and is based on a computer game Adams was working on, which in turn was based on a short passage of text in the third book of the Hitchhiker series called Life, The Universe and Everything which was, in turn, actually, adapted from a "Doctor Who" script treatment written by Adams titled "Doctor Who and the Cricket Men"). I could never, however, find cheap copies of Last Chance to See or The Meaning of Liff, both of which he co-wrote, the former with biologist Mark Carwardine and the latter with his friend John Lloyd (the two also worked on an updated version called The Deeper Meaning of Liff several years later which was, counter-intuitively, even harder to find).

At some point, though, I lost track of the Illustrated Guide (Jon, Zach, Will, I'm looking in your directions. Ah hell, I think Dave has it. Shit, it's in Alaska, I'll never get it back now) while my pristine new copies of books one and four dissolved into tatters quicker than books two, three and five for some reason. I lost the dust jacket to the omnibus edition. And about a year ago, I finally gave up the paperback editions of each book...except for that original dog-eared copy I pulled off the shelf in seventh grade. Also, I now have a leather bound, gold-leafed edition of the omnibus collection. It looks like a bible and I truly do treat it as a holy book. I'm strange like that.

There are gaps in that history. I started a band named "The Hitchhikers" and we had songs like "I'm Sold on Pan-Galactic Gargle Blasters" because we were all really into the books. I wrote stories through high school which were at first imitations of Douglas Adams' style but gradually became my own voice, a voice which has now little of the Adams influence apparent, unless, of course, I, as I am doing now, allow it to seep in, ever so softly, to the edges of my speech, from time to time, now and again.

But the simplicity of some of his work is astounding. The idea that one need only to know where their towel is, and everything will be just fine, is a great metaphor. You just have to find what your towel is, and then find it, and know where it is at all times. My towel is writing, I guess. The day I lost the ability to write, to use my voice, I'm lost. I don't mean writer's block, oh no. Even days when I can't get word one on the page, I at least have the desire to do so, the drive, and I can muster out a little here and there and, perhaps, get the creativity flowing. I mean if I ever sit down to write and realize, "Nope. Not any more. Can't do it now, won't be able to ever again. Might as well go buy an automatic transmissioned Buick and drive with my blinker on and never remember which meal I've just eaten or where I put my damn keys that were, I swear, right here in my left pocket just a minute ago, or was that last month?

Whoa, where did I go there?

You know what I mean, though. I think. The towel; your lifeline. And maybe even your answer, or even your question to match your answer. These are things that will make sense if/when you've read the books. It nothing else, it should clear up any confusion you may have over my seeming obsession with the number forty-two.

Anyway, the point of all of this; Douglas Adams was a profound and confounding person. Ever novel he wrote was a best seller, which is a great track record, but the problem is that while ostensibly it would take him three or four years to actually write a novel, he would do most of the actual writing in the month or so before the unusually mobile deadline, which would likely have been passed and extended more times than should be allowed by law, if there were people sensible enough to make such laws. When he died in May of 2001, he was rumored to be working on what was either going to be the third Dirk Gently novel, something entirely new or, much to the delight and subsequent sadness of millions of fans who felt Mostly Harmless was a sub-par and thoroughly depressing fifth book in the series, the sixth Hitchhiker novel. He was also working on the feature film version of the original novel, which he had been working on for over twenty years (and which was finally completed in 2005, possibly the only incarnation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy we're likely to see on a big screen for many years, if ever again).

The fragments from this novel in progress (the most completed of which were quite clearly meant to be the third Dirk Gently novel) were collected alongside several letters, speeches and articles Adams had written over the years and published as The Salmon of Doubt, which had been the working title of the novel.

Over the next few weeks, I will be talking more about Douglas Adams, his effect on me, and his work. I'll do reviews of each of the books in his two series, and finish with analysis of the next bit of news I am about to drop.

As I mentioned above, many fans believed Mostly Harmless to be rather bleak, and Adams admitted as such. I, for one, have always been upset at the end of it. Each year, I re-read the series, and each year I contemplate stopping at the end of book four (some years, when I was feeling really wretched about things, I would even consider stopping at book three or book two or, chuck it all, not even starting) but each time I read all the way through. Earlier this year I was greeted with news that Eoin Colfer, author of the Artemis Fowl series, has been selected to write the sixth installment of the Hitchhiker series. He has the blessings of the publisher, the estate of Douglas Adams and also Adams' widow. He even initially turned it down, fearing what he could not avoid should he accept; the wrath of the fan boy. It's like spending tax money; no matter how he does it, he'll be wrong. Yet, I will support him. I will take his book with a grain of salt. It is not the sixth book in the series by Douglas Adams. It is the first book in the series of six books not written by Douglas Adams. I can only hope it's a tenth as good as Adams himself would have made it, were he still alive today.

I have a sense, right now, of looking up, up through the words I have written at this lofty and gangly British man named Douglas Adams, standing atop the words I have written like some sort of God. I don't feel good about doing that. I don't want to elevate him that much. But it's hard not to; so much of the last, what, almost twenty years now, my life has been peppered with his words. I'm afraid I've built him up too much, but the good thing about that is, now I will never have to meet him and embarass him by being starry-eyed.

For those Hitchhiker fans who have not heard of it yet, the new novel will be called And Another Thing... and you can find out more information about it here on the official website.

That is all for now, folks. See you next time!