Sci-fi fans like Douglas Adams because he wrote good sci-fi

Today would have been Douglas Adams’ 61st birthday, if he hadn’t gone and left the world a smaller, darker place by carelessly dying in 2001. Google have a celebratory Hitchhiker’s doodle (currently on their search homepage, after today it will presumably appear on the doodles archive page) which I spent a delightful few minutes playing with when I encountered it late last night. The Guardian have picked up on Google’s sweet little tribute, and commissioned an article that identifies Adams as the still-reigning king of comic sci-fi. The author of that piece, David Barnett, says many lovely and erudite things about Adams and his books, but gets himself into a bit of a pickle when he tries to understand why sci-fi fans love the books. It’s not that Barnett’s analysis is out-and-out wrong – I agree with him that Adams succeeds partly because he manages to have gentle fun with sci-fi tropes without just mocking them – but rather that it’s incomplete.

The reason sci-fi fans like Douglas Adams’ books – Hitchhiker’s particularly – is actually very simple. It’s because, as well as being brilliantly funny, they’re properly good science fiction novels, with clever, interesting, thought-provoking ideas. Principle among these is the idea of the Guide itself.

Here and now, the idea of an electronic device small enough to slip into your pocket that provides access to a vast repository of information presented as text, diagrams, animations and video clips seems commonplace, but it’s only really become so in the years since Adams’ death, and when he first had the idea in the late 70s it was pretty much visionary. Especially since the Guide wasn’t imagined as a work of traditional scholarship – parodied by Adams as the worthy but poorly-selling Encyclopaedia Galactica – but as an idiosyncratic anthology of individual essays reflecting personal obsessions, and loosely compiled by people who were more interested in knowing how to mix the best cocktails than they were in fact-checking. It’s like Adams literally foresaw the internet… but, actually, it’s far more interesting than that: Adams is one of the vanishingly few writers who has actually influenced the direction of culture. The internet is like it is in part because it was initially set up and made by people who were consciously trying to recreate in real life what they’d read about in Douglas Adams’ fiction.

But the idea of the Guide appeals to sci-fi fans for other reasons, too. What self-respecting sci-fi fan wouldn’t be thrilled to the cockles of their nerdish heart at the idea of a tourist guide that would provide step-by-step instructions for getting off this ‘utterly insignificant little blue-green planet far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy’ and exploring the great beyond? (I know I was and am, and my cockles aren’t even all that nerdish – I’m far more of a wannabe than a bona fide nerd.) Most spaceships-and-laser-guns sci-fi imagines its events taking place far away and amongst other species, or if it involves humans it imagines it taking place far in the future, long after every one of us will be dead. Hitchhiker’s is almost unique in imaging a classic sci-fi adventure in which a contemporary human could participate, if only they could lay their hands on an Electronic Thumb and a good enough towel.

There are other strong sci-fi ideas in Hitchhiker’s, too. Take the Infinite Improbability Drive, which creates whales that come to have a detailed, if brief, understanding of the literal meaning of the phrase ‘terminal velocity’, and provides the author with an elegantly plausible deus ex machina when he needs to rescue his two protagonists from open space. In lesser hands, such a device would have been a throwaway means to an end, but under Adams’ skilful exposition it becomes an intriguing idea: it’s highly improbable that a spaceship would be able to travel rapidly across vast interstellar distances, so a device that generates an “improbability field” around the ship until it spontaneously does just that is a clever idea. It’s not remotely plausible, of course – but if there were such a thing as an improbability field, and if it were possible to generate one by technological means, then the device would work exactly as Adams describes it. It’s a way of travelling faster than light that would violate the known laws of physics (as faster-than-light travel always must), but not the laws of mathematics. And the realisation that a spaceship so equipped would measure and report probability odds rather than speed is simply brilliant – proof positive that Adams had actually worked it all out.

There are also things in Hitchhiker’s that appeal to sci-fi fans because they take familiar ideas, and push them beyond the familiar. This is a foundational trope in space-based sci-fi: the genre was born out of the idea that the familiar idea of exploring the world could be made unfamiliar by exploring space instead. There’s also a certain type of comedy that achieves its effect by pushing a familiar idea to the point where it becomes absurd – think of the famous Monty Python sketch where, instead of a dodgy salesman refusing to believe that a newly-bought toaster doesn’t work, he takes the same attitude towards a dead parrot. Some of the best things in Hitchhiker’s combine the two, as when Adams takes the familiar sci-fi idea of robots being given artificial personalities so that they can interact more easily with their human masters – then pushes it by imagining what would happen if a robot ended up as a depressive. Or the lifts that go one better than Star Trek lifts and their voice-recognition technology by having precognitive circuits so they know where you want to go before you do – but then end up skulking in the basement because they’ve foreseen the destruction of the building.

Of course, the other big reason sci-fi fans like Douglas Adams is that he’s very, very funny. There’s a tendency sometimes to imagine that sci-fi fans are a wholly distinct species, with no interests or knowledge beyond sci-fi. That’s probably true for some of them, but most participate happily and with great pleasure in wider culture, which means that they (I should really say we) are as capable as anyone else of appreciating that Adams is a master of comic dialogue (“It’s rather unpleasantly like being drunk.” “What’s wrong with being drunk?” “Ask a glass of water”), that he can create brilliant comic set-pieces (’42’), and that he’s capable of some of the greatest comic writing ever seen in the English language (Arthur Dent’s aggrieved summary of the reason he had not known his house was scheduled for demolition). Sci-fi fans are also eminently capable of spotting the cleverer, philosophical element to his work. In fact, they’re potentially more capable of spotting them than general readers, since intelligent sci-fi novels tend to be novels of ideas first and foremost. So, for example, they appreciate the satire on religion (the Electric Monk in Dirk Gently), and the balancing criticism of self-promoting atheists (if not the idea of atheism: Adams said he was ‘certain God does not exist’): there are times when I’ve been almost certain Richard Dawkins was modelling his career on that of Oolon Colluphid.

I agree with David Barnett in his Guardian article when he argues that Adams remains the undisputed king of comic sci-fi. It’s a little odd that he doesn’t mention Harry Harrison in his survey of the genre, though that oversight is corrected in the comments – I’d be quite surprised if the early Stainless Steel Rat novels, especially, weren’t an influence on Douglas Adams. But for me the remarkable thing about Douglas Adams is that, despite the fact that he has obvious influences and forebears (Patrick Troughton-era Doctor Who is another), he achieved something that’s almost unique.

Barnett mentions Terry Pratchett in his article, suggesting that he has done for the comic fantasy genre what Adams did for comic sci-fi. It’s not an inaccurate statement, but Pratchett – much though I love him: he remains one of my favourite writers of all time – is not as original as Adams. Pratchett uses his fantasy world – which closely mirrors developments in our world – to offer criticism and critique of contemporary society. That’s a noble and worthwhile undertaking, and he does it while managing to be laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s not an innovative one. There’s a long-standing tradition of using fantasy to offer a satirical parody of the real world, stretching back at least as far as Gulliver’s Travels. Similarly, Neil Gaiman – who wrote an ‘official’ companion to Hitchhiker’s, and who Barnett mentions as a potential successor to Adams – is, for all his greatness, a much more conventional author than Adams.

What made Douglas Adams so great – at least in my opinion – is that his real subject-matter and preoccupation was ideas. He worked in the genres of sci-fi and (in the Dirk Gently novels) fantasy, but what he valued those genres for was the opportunity they gave him to think about and explore pure ideas. He delighted in telling stories and making people laugh (although there were times when he seemed to resent the label ‘comic novelist’), and it would be a huge mistake to underplay the significance of that – the main reason anyone should read (or watch, or listen to, or play) something created by Douglas Adams is the sheer amount of fun they’ll have as a result.

But what makes the work live, and work better each time you re-read it, is the experience of watching Douglas Adams play with ideas – puzzling out what it would feel like to learn to fly, or how people from different planets could understand each other when they spoke, or how a spaceship could travel faster than light, or what it would be like if the Norse gods were still around in the late 20th century. He’s one of those writers – like John Donne and Alexander Pope – where one of the great, abiding pleasures of reading their work is the illusion of spending time in the presence of a great mind that enjoys playing with ideas simply for the ravishing joy it brings. It’s like he was writing pornography for the intellect.

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