14 years ago today I sat down to write a short article about someone who’d inspired me as a writer. If you know about Towel Day, you can guess that I’m referring to Douglas Adams. In 2001, Adams unexpectedly passed away. He may not have been prophetic, but he wrote some fantastic stories. Much like Terry Pratchett, he brought healthy doses of wit and credibility to the realm of satire.
2 weeks after his death, to allow time for word to get around, fans organised a tribute in the form of Towel Day. Riffing on one of Adams’ anecdotes – that towels are incredibly useful, both practically and psychologically – fans declared a day to carry their towels in tribute to a man whose writing touched their lives.
One year later, I discovered that I had actually overlooked one of Adams’ books. I ate the book up. It wasn’t one of his greatest, but it was fantastic to hear that voice again. I felt like I could revisit anew the moments in the past when I’d previously poured over his words. I could see the moody, awkward, metal-loving teen, who couldn’t help being entirely absorbed by the fantastical absurdity of those stories. Finishing that final novel was quite bittersweet. I’ve had few moments when I’ve actually been so deeply moved by something I’ve read.
Long story slightly shorter, a burst of inspiration nailed me to my keyboard on the 25th of May, 2002. In surprisingly short order I knocked out an article that … well, I saw it as a tribute to an idol I’d never have the chance to meet. My intention was to submit it to a magazine and perhaps get my words on the printed page.
I chickened out.
Then I forgot about it.
Cue the 25th of May, 2016…
I’ve spent the better part of 2 hours hunting down samples of my old writing hoping to find at least a remnant of said article. I thought it was good at the time, and I was more than a little curious to see what the older/not-terribly-wiser me would think. The search wound through dusty Evernote notebooks. I skillfully avoided ancient snippets of poetry. Wove through some … absolutely embarrassing old love letters. I even found an archived Tumblr blog from the days of dial-up. And finally ended up in a shockingly still functioning LiveJournal backup tucked away in an email on a long-dormant hotmail account.
You know what? It’s not bad! I usually winge about Past Adam and his carefree, ‘Future Adam can deal with this shit’, attitude, but he had some skill.
I decided that I’m not going to balk at it any longer. Despite its flaws, I think the article is still quite good. It may never get published, but at least I can put it out there on a day when it actually feels topical.
What follows is, verbatim, something committed to the world-wide-web back in the heady days of 2002…
If you continue reading from here, thank you.
PS – please don’t hold the ‘z’s against me. I used to be Canadian, but I’m slowly learning.
Thanks For so Much More Than Just the Fish
Some people, many of them more famous than I, seem to have real problems meeting deadlines. Many of those people have had many insightful things to say about the phenomenon. It is likely that a lot of their words, however, were merely icing to soothe increasingly irate publishers. Afterall, does it matter if the cake is dry as long as the icing is particularly delectable?
Douglas Adams, for instance, once mentioned that he didn’t mind deadlines. In fact, he somewhat enjoyed them. He particularly enjoyed “the sound they make as they whoosh past.” I suspect that he was simply using his wit to ice a cake that had become quite dry and unsavoury.
For those of you who have seen through my thinly-veiled allusion, you have probably guessed that this article will have something to do with Douglas Adams. I mention Adams, in particular, as today is a day that has become moderately significant due entirely to one of his anecdotes; the importance and usefulness of always carrying a towel. Trust me. Read up on it. It’s witty and entirely sensical.
Some of you may have no inkling of who I’m talking about. It’s also possible that you do know, but have stored the memory in some secure place in your mind, only to have conveniently lost the key. It’s no matter either way. I honestly wouldn’t have started the topic if I didn’t intend to give you some idea of what I’m babbling about. Here goes …
Douglas Adams was, simply put, an author. More specifically, he was a science fiction/fantasy author. To put things more specifically still, he was a sci-fi/fantasy author who specialized in mashing satire, absurdity, and downright nonsense with spaceships and the “fundamental interconnectedness of all things.” Basically, he had a knack for taking this and that and creating something that a great many people would enjoy reading.
At best, when you take a handful of this and a clump of that, then mash them together, you’re left with nothing but a fine mess on your hands.
At the very least you end up with a handful of useless slop and a dollop of muck on your shirt. If you were hoping for a dollop of muck, then you’d really have nothing to complain about; however, it’s likely that you’d rather have not just ruined your favourite shirt. In Douglas’ case, he had a knack for mixing this and that and creating thoroughly enjoyable combinations of words. He also had a knack for putting those combinations of words on a page, fastening many pages together, and turning them into an international bestseller, although he’d probably never admit to doing any of it on purpose.
If you’re still in the dark about this Douglas Adams fellow, perhaps I should mention that he wrote the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. Let’s see, he also wrote a little about a horribly unlucky (or incredibly lucky, depending on your frame of mind) holistic detective, several radio shows for British people, and was at least somewhat to blame for a major motion picture that came out last year. The good parts that is…and maybe one of the ones that made you consider pursuing a refund for your ticket. Oh yeah, he also once climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in a Rhino costume. I’m sure the list of people who turn up if you pop that into Google would be unusually small. If none of this rings a bell, you may as well stop reading now and be careful not to bump your head on the rock on your way back under; although I won’t stop you if you want to continue reading. I can’t imagine that the underside of a rock is terribly intriguing to look at, nor much comfortable to sit under, for that matter.
That all said, Douglas Adams was an author with a penchant for silliness. If you look in the Hitchhikers’ Guide books, that’s exactly what you will find. Now, I’m not going to sit here and try to convince you of Douglas’ brilliance or profound contribution to literature. If someone ever manages to construct an artificially intelligent robot, and then implants it with the persona of Douglas Adams, I’m sure it would laugh all of the logic out of its circuits if I were to even suggest leading you in that direction.
To be honest, Douglas’ books often became very silly. The silliness can end up compounding so much between books that you may wish that you’d interspersed them with some heavy editions of Tolstoy or a hearty consumer electronics manual. That’s not to say that his stories are too silly, it’s just that you should be prepared for rampant absurdity before diving in. When you get used to the absurdity, his books are thoroughly enjoyable. As an adult, I still enjoy re-reading Douglas’ books; however, I can’t imagine the amount of fun I would’ve had with them had I discovered them when I was a decade-plus-a-bit younger…
However, one should not be under the assumption that all of Douglas’ work could be classified under goofballishness or tomfoolery. The publication of his final, unfinished, tale includes a collection of letters, essays, and this and that which Mr. Adams had penned throughout his life. It is in these snippets that his personality and flair are really revealed.
It turns out that Douglas Adams was a very insightful man. If you look closely, peer through the silliness if you will, you’ll catch many glimpses of his insight throughout the tapestry of his stories. He thought about the world a great deal. More accurately, he thought about the world at large a great deal more than it concerned itself with him. He was obsessed with technology and gadgets to an overzealous extent … much in the way that a little boy becomes enthralled with bugs and construction machinery. He mused about the future of communication; tussled with the machinations of technology; questioned the idiosyncrasies of religion; loved the Mac like an artist loves his favourite pen. And so on and so forth.
It’s safe to say that, not only did he refuse to let the bandwagon pass him, he likely drove on ahead and offered directions.
Bandwagon or not, I get the impression that Douglas Adams lived a very full life. For an author, he didn’t write many stories. At least, not many stories long enough to be called novels. However, Douglas did write a lot. Snippets, letters, essays, articles, scripts, you name it. Rather than spend all of his time making up things that never existed, he seemed to devote a great deal of it to things that were, are, and may be. His most endearing writing can be found in the realm of non-fiction. Douglas’ articles on religion, technology, ecology, the environment, and general this’n’that are thoroughly enjoyable, even more so than his works of make-believe.
If you were to read nothing else by Douglas Adams, or you have tried but found him inaccessible, I’d suggest that you hunt down copies of the ‘Salmon of Doubt’ and ‘Last Chance to See.’ The former may or may not have turned into a new entry into the saga of Dirk Gently, the holistic detective. Or it may have become the 6th portion of the Hitchhikers’ Trilogy. Or not. When Douglas left he took his thought process with him. In the grand scheme of things, such an oversight is quite acceptable. Unfortunately for us, doing so left the intent of his final novel without its subsequent Rosetta Stone. We’re pretty much stuck with best guesses and spotty assumptions.
The lack of a definite finale isn’t all bad, though. It does leave one room to dream, which may be a fitting testament to the author.
Oh yes, the latter book. Last Chance to See is Douglas’ account of an expedition that he took, with several friends, to document the state of some of the rarest animals on earth. Oh, and some blokes from the BBC tagged along as well. Anyway, Douglas took his experiences — we’ll call them “this” (for the sake of consistency) — mustered some humour — we’ll call it “that” — and mashed the two together. The result was a book that captured the wonder of the environment, the hardships of the crew, the daunting plight of some incredibly rare creatures, and tied it all together with a style and prose that was distinctly Adams. The whole package was then delivered in a manner that made it very hard to put down.
You may be asking yourself why I’d spend so much time writing about someone whom I’ve never met, known, or had so much as nothing to do with? Quite simply, I realized that I’ve just read the last new thing that I’ll ever read from the mind of Douglas Adams. Hidden treasures may pop out of the woodwork from time to time, but this is essentially it. Grand finale, though it may be, the realization is a little depressing. I honestly admire the man. It’s not because he wrote about silly things that made me laugh, either. Other authors write about equally silly things that make me wary of drinking too much before delving into their pages. Other people have written extensively about ecology. Many have written, and will write, about the future. Some even manage to link the unlikely event of being blown over in New York to a butterfly flitting serenely through a forest in Sri Lanka.
Douglas simply had a ‘way,’ with words — a zeal, if you will. He was a man who seemed to do what he loved, did it in his own way, and apparently had a ripping good time doing it.