Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams, by MJ Simpson

Hitchhikers_Douglas Adams(Justin, Charles & Co., 2005)

Stephen Fry, in his autobiography The Fry Chronicles, writes of being friends with Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (HG2G) series.”He was never free to play [on Macintosh computers] of course, being eternally under the shadow of a writing deadline and so, naturally, we would play. Douglas’s remark about deadlines has become the final word on the subject. ’I love deadlines, I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by’. (p. 367) This is the main conclusion I reached after reading Mike Simpson’s exhaustive and detailed biography: Douglas Adams was bad at deadlines and did a lot of his writing with the help of other people, editors in particular.

How’s his writing?

Simpson wrote it after he had been the deputy editor of the British science fiction magazine SFX, writer of two books on Adam, including this one, and the organizer and editor of ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha, the official Hitchhiker’s Guide appreciation society. The book contains copious public and private documents and Simpson’s personal insights.

It is hard to read, being densely detailed, with reams of dates about when what was broadcast or published, for 382 pages, all of which I read because I’m a true fan. It struck me that Simpson was not particularly sympathetic towards his subject. Perhaps Adams really was a kind of a pain-in-the-ass personality, but surely everyone has more than one angle. Added to that, Simpson says: “Numerous other people agreed to be interviewed about Douglas but, because of my workload and impending deadline, I was unable to do so.” After having read it, I still had unanswered questions: What made Adams tick? Why was he the way he was?

The Salmon of Doubt, by Douglas Adams
The Salmon of Doubt, by Douglas Adams

What was Adams like?

What emerges is that Adams, while brilliant, was a procrastinator of note, and publishers had to lock him up to get him to write anything. Left to his own devices, he had fun, played on computers and let the deadlines fly by. South African author Rona Rupert said once, that everyone has one, just one, good story inside them that they have to write. If an author writes that defining novel, it is usually their top achievement and the best in their œuvre. The problem then is to continue on that tangent, pulling off more novels of the same quality and the same impassioned conviction.

Arguably, the second HG2G book, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, was the best of the series. The first HG2G book, by the same title, started as a 1978 comedy radio script, and then Douglas’ problem was turning it into a book. And following that with other books, computer games and spin-offs like film scripts. Adams suffered badly from writer’s block (I still don’t know why), and this was particularly bothersome when large teams of people depended on him, like during the development of the 1984 computer game based on the books. In the end it was up to Steve Meretzky to get the slog-work done.

Adams died in 2001, aged only 49, after HG2G had made him famous. For millions of people, HG2G is a cultural and literary benchmark. I personally refer more to the HG2G world on a daily basis than to Star Wars, Star Trek, Dune or The Culture. But after having read Simpson’s book, I doubt whether Adams would ever have produced something as great as the original HG2G “trilogy” in his lifetime. On the other hand, perhaps that achievement was sublime enough. I think Adams fans have to wait for a biography from another author for Father’s Day. Or read The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time, a posthumous collection of Adams’ essays about technology and life experiences, and the incomplete novel on which he was working at the time of his death,  called The Salmon of Doubt. top

HG2G is alive and well today

Google Doodle on Douglas Adams’s 61th birthday – I love Google Doodles, even this one that’s a bit blurry. It’s cute.