Wish You Were Here: The Offical Biography of Douglas Adams – New Introduction
It’s hard to believe that Douglas Adams died at the age of only 49 on 11 May 2001, a decade ago. Happily his writing is still ubiquitously available. Look under “A” in any decent bookshop and you will find – attractively repackaged – all his books in a format that he would doubtless have called laminated wood pulp technology. “They’re my pension,” he once remarked. Today he would have been even more thrilled by the variety of electronic gadgets into which you can download his work. Douglas loved computers, especially Apple Macs, and you can bet that within moments of its first appearance he would have bought an Ipod, the top of the range with a memory as large as Marvin’s.
Entering the language, as Douglas did, is a kind of immortality. Now we can allude without footnotes to Deep Thought or Zaphod Beeblebrox with his unquenchable ego. The Babel Fish is understood as a universal translator; indeed it lent its name to translation software. In his most recent book, the physicist, Steven Hawking, talks about the problem of “Life, the Universe and Everything” though he thinks the solution is a bit more rococo than “42”. That number has entire websites of frightening numerological subtlety devoted to it. A Google search of Adams, Douglas reveals millions of references.
Douglas described the process of developing a film as akin to cooking a steak by having a series of men come into the room to breathe upon it. Nevertheless, the movie of H2G2 (as it is termed by the buffs) eventually appeared in 2005. It charmed and intrigued a new generation of fans while exasperating those legions who had their own rather proprietorial notions about the characters. There has even been a sequel to the Hitchhiker trilogy (all four volumes of it) written by Eoin Colfer (And Another Thing –part six of three), and very engaging it is too, avoiding pastiche while relishing the spirit of the original.
Yet there are less obvious ways in which Douglas left his mark upon the world. He was passionate about science in general and evolution in particular, and his books contain a piercing sense of wonder at just how unlikely the universe can be. He was a natural educator, and he knew that humour is the way to snare an audience. His tale of the Kakapo bird of New Zealand that tries to ensure its survival by slowing down its already pathetically dilatory rate of reproduction was polished to a little gem. How can we fail to see that ancient instincts sometimes serve us badly? In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe Douglas has God, a rackety old git who lives in a shed with a disagreeable cat, fretting about the concept of solipsism. Why should He bother to administer the cosmos when He cannot prove that it exists? This was a deeply philosophical idea to find in a comic SF novel.
Along with all his good jokes and elegantly fluent writing (P.G. Wodehouse was his hero in that regard), perhaps Douglas’s most enduring legacy will be his quirky world view. He understood the mind-buggering (as he put it before being censored) strangeness of the universe and chortled at its appalling size and comical indifference.
As a biographer there is a great temptation some years on to add extra information, but I have resisted it. Wish You Were Here does not contain every anecdote about Douglas, but how could it? Nothing has emerged since Douglas’s death that makes me like him any less. Writing any biography, as Boswell observed of his life of Johnson, is presumptuous. Rewriting a very personal memoir would be doubly so.
Nick Webb, London October 2010