Yesterday was the birthday of the late, great science fiction writer and luminary known as Douglas Adams. Had he not passed away in 2001, at the age of forty-one, he would have been celebrating his sixty-first birthday. Best remembered for his series The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Adams greatest accomplishment was arguably his ability to weave comedy and science fiction into one!
And that’s not the easiest thing to do in a genre like science fiction, which is noted for being often bleak, dystopian, or highly technical. Sure, there was plenty that was unintentionally funny, especially in Douglas’ time, but Adams demonstrated that science fiction writing could be both high-minded – incorporating real science and galactic exploration – and irreverent.
So I hope people will join me in wishing the man a belated happy birthday! Though I learned about it too late to acknowledge it on time, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. The man did have a rich sense of humor, after all!
Born in Cambridge, England in 1952, Adams parents moved to London when he was still a toddler. They divorced five years later, and Adams spent his formative years with his mother in Brentwood, east of London. Receiving his education from the privately run Brentwood School, he was noted for being unusually tall, he also stood out because of his exceptional ability at creative writing.
Some of his earliest writing was published at the school, in the town publication The Brentwoodian, or the school magazine Broadsheet. He also designed the cover of one issue of the latter, and had a letter and short story published nationally in The Eagle, the boys’ comic, in 1965. On the strength of a bravura essay on religious poetry that discussed the Beatles and William Blake, he was awarded a place at St John’s College, Cambridge to read English in 1971 and graduated two years later.
While there, he also attempted to ply his comedic skills and applied to join the Footlights, an invitation-only student comedy club. While he waited to join, he began writing and performing in revues with Will Adams (no relation) and Martin Smith, forming a group called “Adams-Smith-Adams”. By 1973, he managed to become a member of the Footlights until he graduated and moved back to London.
At this point of his life, he was determined to break into television and radio as a writer. This resulted in a brief collaboration between him and Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, and a series of appearances by Adam’s on Flying Circus. At the time though, his writing style did not seem suited to radio or TV comedy, and he was forced to work odd jobs to make ends meet. However, Adams never stopped writing and continued to work towards his masterpiece.
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy:
Hitchhiker began in 1977 as a pitch to the BBC radio as a concept for a science-fiction comedy radio series. According to Adams, the idea for the title occurred to him while he lay drunk in a field in Innsbruck, Austria, gazing at the stars. He was carrying a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe, and it occurred to him that “somebody ought to write a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy“.
At the same time, Douglas worked on novelizations of his concept, which made producing the series all the more difficult. Not a prodigious writer, Adams was apparently the kind of man who had to be forced to meet deadlines and complete what he started. Despite the difficulties he had, Adams wrote five novels in the series, published in 1979, 1980, 1982, 1984, and 1992.
For the rest of his life, Adams made several attempts to get Hitchhiker adapted into a movie. He did not succeed in his lifetime, but in 1981, the radio series became the basis for a BBC television mini-series and Disney bought the rights in 1998. It was not until 2005, four years after his death, that the screenplay finally got a posthumous re-write by Karey Kirkpatrick, and the resulting movie was released.
Despite Hitchhikers immense popularity, it was by no means Adam’s only literary creation. During the 1980’s, Adams and Mark Carwardine, a noted zoologist, collaborated on a series of BBC broadcasts known as Last Chance to See where they would travel to foreign countries and speak of endangered species.
In between all this, he wrote the novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, a humorous detective story which was relesead in 1987. Adams himself described the book as “a kind of ghost-horror-detective-time-travel-romantic-comedy-epic, mainly concerned with mud, music and quantum mechanics.” A sequel, entitled The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, was published a year later. These were entirely original works, Adams’s first since So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.
In between all of this, Adams also worked with the BBC as a writer on Doctor Who. Altogether, he wrote three Doctor Who serials starring Tom Baker as the Doctor. These included the episodes “The Pirate Planet” (Season 16), “City of Death” (with producer Graham Williams, from an original storyline by writer David Fisher), and Shada (only partially filmed and never filmed).
Adams died in 2001 as a result of a degenerative heart condition and was buried in Highgate Cemetery, North London. After eighteen years of writing, publishing, and broadcasting, he left an indelible mark on science fiction and popular culture. The holiday known as Towel Day – in honor of the sage advice contained in the Guide – takes place every May 25th.
And despite his irreverence and characteristic wit, Adams is also remembered for exploring scientifically plausible ideas. For example, the Heart of Gold – the ship featured in Hitchhiker – is powered by the “Infinite Improbability Drive”. This is an FTL drive system which is based in a particular aspect of quantum theory. Chaos theory also plays an important role in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, where everything, even elements which seem superfluous, turn out to be interconnected with the plot.
The words “Don’t Panic”, also advice contained within the Guide, and the significance thereof are known by any self-respecting geek. Concepts like the “Babel Fish”, the living translation device one inserts in their ear, are also commemorated with programs like Yahoo’s translation program of the same name. Also, in 2011, over 3000 people took part in a public vote to choose the subjects of People’s Plaques in Islington. Adams received 489 votes, and a plaque is due to be erected in his honour.
And just yesterday, to mark his 61st birthday, Google celebrated with an interactive “Google Doodle” which featured a stylized version of the Heart of Gold’s computer console. In addition, the BBC has the text-based Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game available to play on their website here. So if you’ve got time and feel like doing something fun to commemorate Adams, just click on the links provided and enjoy!
RIP Douglas Adams. You were a rich soul and a witty, funny, and brilliant man. Like so many before you, you were snatched up too soon and didn’t live long enough to get your proper due!