We never met, drat the bad luck. In our first encounter, Douglas was flashing his bum at me as he ran naked into the sea, shucking fistfuls of money in all directions. After that, being bowled over by the genius of his humour and struggling to grasp the breadth of his imagination was continuous enjoyment. Who was this man who piqued our minds, asking questions that challenged every norm? Douglas Adams wasn't just a writer or a gadfly prodding various Established Truths, he was a phenomenon. Mike Simpson makes a worthy effort to impart something meaningful about Adams. He provides a wealth of information about Adams' activities, his struggle to meet deadlines, his circle of friends. In the end, however, Simpson's portrayal lacks the scope Adams worked within and the spark of "life" that would grant this book a place as a true biography. As a life, this book can only be called insipid.
Although Simpson is compelled to limit his view of Adams' childhood, apart from his "prep" school years, the author fails to establish the environment surrounding his subject. Nothing of the Britain of the year of Adams birth, 1952 is offered as background. His later schooling years, which was also the era of "Beatlemania", aren't reflected in the dynamics of that time. Instead, we learn of Adams aversion to sports and his crashing embarrassment at being forced to retain short pants after moving to more senior levels. Later, at Cambridge, Adams' involvement with the performing club "Footlights" certainly allowed him to begin his comedy career. His desire to become a "writer-performer" was manifested, but the gawky, clumsy lad was often a physical threat to others on stage.
Simpson traces well the path of Adams' career as a script-writer. An avid admirer of John Cleese, Adams emulated him in many ways. He would have made a great "Python", but by the time Adams was beginning to make his mark, "Monty Python" was winding down. Douglas wrote for "Doctor Who" at the same time he was developing "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy". It was an indication of how hectic his life would become. In one segment, Simpson relates how Adams and a co-author sequestered themselves in a villa in southern France to complete "Last Chance to See", but spent the entire time at long lunches and interesting discussions. Words on paper failed to emerge. That never bothered Adams, who loved "to hear deadlines whoosh by". Missed deadlines, for which Adams' reputation seems to tower over all others, seem to pale in comparison to the delays incurred when his work was to be transferred to the film screen. The dissension, Simpson shows, was continuous and unending. There was a point when Adams was forced to buy back rights to his own work!
In a small but necessary concession to the world around Adams, Simpson explains how the release of the first "Star Wars" opened doors of opportunity for Adams' work to move to visual presentation. All the hesitation over putting "sci-fi" on BBC television was swept away and HHGG was produced as a result. Simpson notes that the timing led some to believe HHGG was a "send-up" of science fiction, but he dismisses that readily. HHGG was original thinking, demonstrating that Adams was well ahead in his view of putting science into interesting stories. His characters and events went far beyond Hollywood's interpretation of sci-fi. More importantly, the innovative graphics were supplemental to the story line and characters. The graphics only enhanced the narrative without dominating the themes, in the way Hollywood dealt with them.
In the meagre offerings Simpson attempts to reveal Adams' interests and what led him along certain tracks, we learn of the association with the Beatles. The focus, it seems, was on parties and name-dropping. Adams made one production involving Ringo Starr, but that went nowhere. As Adams matured, he lost a sense of the Christianity he was raised in. Simpson provides a flimsy chapter, "Interlude - God", in which Adams describes himself as waffling about deities. It provides nothing of the roots of his shift from religiosity. Although there is mention of his relation to Richard Dawkins, who married "Doctor Who's" Lalla Ward, there is nothing related about Adams' growing interest in science. When he realised his initials were "DNA", Adams later made much of the connection. None of that appears here. It took Richard Dawkins to extol Adams' "amalgamated knowledge of literature and science" in his "Lament for Douglas" to provide the proper assessment. It's almost astonishing that Simpson incorporates none of the accolades voiced at Adams' death.
Simpson has provided fans with much detail on Adams' career - collaborators, agents, and BBC officialdom. There are many legends and corrections of legends supplied. The chronicler deserves full credit for the immense task he has accomplished. As you close the final page, however, you realise the job is incomplete. The detail obscures the greater picture, which Simpson fails to encapsulate. Perhaps that is indicative of the immensity of coping with the subject. Adams was a big man in many ways and it's to be hoped that a full depiction of his life will be the next step. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on December 19, 2003
And better than pretty much anything else out there right now. Douglas Adams may be dead (or only hiding), but I'd rather read him or even just read about him than a lot of the self-congratulatory cyber-muck being peddled as SF these days. Hitchhiker is exhaustive (at times, exhausting), dead-on, funny, sad, nostalgic and true. For anyone you know who's read all of DA, or even just some of DA, this is a perfect complement, and a perfect capstone. Neil Gaiman's Don't Panic might be funnier, but Hitchhiker is richer.