The Cartoon History of Humanism, Episode 42 Douglas Adams, the Universe, and Some Other Things

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Douglas Adams, the Universe, and Some Other Things

Sometime between the start of the Universe fourteen billion years ago and a few moments before now, an exceedingly clever protoplasmic descendent called Douglas Adams (1952-2001) happened.

This is generally accepted as having been a good thing.

In the forty-nine years separating Adams’s Having Begun Happening and Having Had Happened, there was a magical decade when he charged forward on the legless donkey of absurdity to the portcullis of brooding, self-serious Science Fiction and asked the forbidden question: “Yes, space is all very good, but why don’t the people act like people?”

DouglasAdamsPeople, after all, spend most of their time either comfortably ensconced in familiar ruts or affably confused. Faced with even the most marvelous goings-on, they tend to start checking their watches after five minutes or so and getting downright irritated by all the relentless majesty after fifteen. Awe fades into tedium faster than most of us want to recognize, and charismatic charlatans shirking real work shape events more often than hero scientist-adventurers. So there’s no reason to suspect that when we jumble ourselves into space somehow, we’ll be terribly different than we are now.

In the midst of all Adams’s wildly inventive acts of imagination—the Babel fish and the Infinite Improbability Drives and the Someone Else’s Problem Fields and the missiles that spontaneously change into pots of petunias and the restaurant that features the nightly destruction of the universe as its central attraction— what he enduringly gave us was a humbling glance at the persistence of our magnificent ordinariness even in the face of the impossible. Adams’s characters traverse the universe, stumble across the creator of everything, discover the ultimate answer to life, and stave off the destruction of the cosmos, all while being slightly bothered by the fuss of it all and strongly hankering after a good spot to eat, a groovy party, or a proper cup of tea.

Arthur Dent, the protagonist of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, toddling forth dressed in a bathrobe and armed with little more than a towel and a bottomless capacity to be placidly pushed around by events, comes hard against all of our most frightening questions: What is our purpose? What is existence all about? The answers were generally underwhelming or just plain nonsensical, and that that was largely just fine. Against the gloomy prognostications that humans freed from their gods and aware of their cosmic meaninglessness would psychologically crumble under the dark emptiness of existence, Adams showed that our dogged love of custom, comfort, and each other is, at its base, more powerful than metaphysics and more potent than epistemology. We can stare into the void and after a couple moments’ discomfort, turn out quite all right. We return to the hum of living without any crippling psychological harm, thanks to the sturdy stuff of our glorious obstinence.

Don’t panic, keep hold of your towel, and everything will be basically good.

Those peak ten years, from roughly 1978 to 1988, represented a heady age when Adams, moved by the curious gears of his fancy, gave everybody something to laugh uncontrollably about and humanists something to read with thankful relief. But what about the other thirty-nine years?


For the first twenty or so years of his life, Douglas Adams’s goal was, essentially, to become John Cleese.  Monty Python was for Adams, like so many of his generation, a revelation of what the medium of sketch comedy might be and say.  The Normal Man Confronts Difficult Situation trope is the bread and butter of sketch comedy, but until the Pythons nobody had really muscled up to its full lunatic potential. The dead parrot purveyors, random Vikings, Proust summarizers, Funny Walk Ministers, underprepared Spanish Inquisitioners, cannibalistic funeral directors, and exploding orchestras that crowded every episode of Flying Circus were themselves superseded in pure imaginative oddity and unfettered inventiveness by Terry Gilliam’s animated sequences. The Pythons’ ability to portray normalcy confronting and ultimately coming to terms with lunacy was to be a specialty of Adams as well, but his role would not be what he thought it would.

What Adams saw in Monty Python was the heroism of the writer-performer, and he went to Cambridge to join the famed Footlights sketch comedy group with that precise object in mind. He majored in English for no other reason than that it was easy and left him enough time to do the stuff he actually liked.  Unfortunately, while his writing was quickly recognized for its originality, he could never quite make it as an actor. He was six feet five inches of arms and legs, and he could not for the life of him keep from laughing on stage. He was seen as a gangling if well-meaning hindrance and was pushed increasingly to the background until he became that most unpromising of creatures, a comedic writer.

By pure force of personality and a willingness to live in abject poverty if it meant more time to pursue his vision of what comedic writing could be, he joined up with Graham Chapman at the very end of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. His contribution was some unknown lines in the very last sketch that aired before he went on to a series of less successful projects with the hard-drinking Python star. After a long stretch of experimentation and collaboration that went nowhere in particular, Adams was offered two opportunities: to create a science fiction humor radio program and to script some episodes and edit a season of Doctor Who. A good number of Adams’s ideas for Doctor Who were considered too odd and expensive for the BBC to risk (with the notable exceptions of “The Pirate Planet” and “City of Death”). But his radio program, a small something called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, written in snatches and bits here and there with no particular idea of where it was going next, was a sleeper hit that would define and haunt the rest of Adams’s life.

The radio program at last brought to the world Arthur Dent, who must wander the universe in his bathrobe in search of a decent cup of tea as a result of the destruction of the Earth; Zaphod Beeblebrox, the extravagant President of the Galaxy who is everything wrong and gorgeous about ‘70s notions of masculinity; Marvin, the perpetually gloomy and much put upon android; Ford Prefect, that hoopy frood who knows where his towel is when the going gets tough; and Trillian, an Earth woman who… Mo, that’s pretty much all there is to say about her. (Writing female characters was never Adams’s strong suit.)

They travel the galaxy in a stolen ship powered by the Infinite Improbability Drive and in the process run into a cast of characters and a collection of ideas so vast and screwy that they make Random Vikings positively quaint and expected by comparison. The novelizations of these programs were multimillion bestsellers, and I’m guessing that on all of your bookshelves there is sitting a set of creased and dog-eared copies of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979), The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980), and Life, the Universe, and Everything (1982).  In fact, as long as Adams kept mining from the vein of his mid-‘70s work, all went well. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987) revives some unused Doctor Who material to create a universe outside of Hitchhiker’s that is generally beloved and which led to The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988).

And that was basically it. Adams tried two more Hitchhiker novels, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish (1984) and Mostly Harmless (1992), but only after his publishers literally locked him up in a room for a few weeks and forced him to write. The results aren’t great, and from 1992 to 2001, Adams bounced between projects. He got very excited at their conception and then slowly drifted off to other things, as with his interactive video game project Starship Titanic or his multi-media company or his often mentioned but never produced upcoming novel, theoretically called The Salmon of Doubt. He dabbled in music, went mad for computers, started a family, resolutely avoided writing his promised next novel, got involved in ecological preservation, and along the way became good friends with Richard Dawkins, whose arguments converted him from the agnosticism he had professed since his teen years to a fully-developed and vocal atheism that remained with him to the end of his days. His atheism also formed the basis of a marvelous extemporaneous speech at Digital Biota 2 in September 1998, Is There an Artificial God?

It’s a ramble of a talk, with flourishes of Adamsean whimsy and thrusts of fierce intellect all swooshing forward on his theory about the Four Ages of Sand and what they betoken for our future as a rational species.  A taste:

Our [prehistoric] Earth man has a moment to reflect and he thinks to himself, “Well, this is an interesting world that I find myself in,” and then he asks himself a very treacherous question, a question that is totally meaningless and fallacious, but only comes about because of the nature of the sort of person he is, the sort of person he has evolved into, and the sort of person who has thrived because he thinks that particular way. Man the maker looks at his world and says, “So who made this then?” Who made this? You can see why it’s a treacherous question. Early man thinks, “Well, because there’s only one sort of being I know about who makes things, whoever made all this must therefore be a much bigger, much more powerful and necessarily invisible, one of me, and because I tend to be the strong one who does all the stuff, he’s probably male.” And so we have the idea of a God. Then, because when we make things, we do it with the intention of doing something with them, early man asks himself, “If he made it, what did he make it for?” Now the real trap springs, because early man is thinking, “The World fits me very well. Here are all these things that support me and feed me and look after me; yes, this world fits me nicely,” and he reaches the inescapable conclusion that whoever made it, made it for him.

This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world I find myself in—an interesting hole I find myself in—fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!” This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be all right, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.  (From The Salmon of Doubt, pp. 131-132)

All the vintage Adams is there—the curious but thick but endearingly self-important human, the anthropomorphic object dreaming galaxies as it hurtles to its tiny end, and the overarching indifference of a universe where stuff keeps happening as it always has and always will whether we’re particularly elated about it or not.So it is a particularly globbering tragedy that, only three years after giving this speech, Douglas Adams suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack in the middle of an exercise routine at the age of forty-nine. We might never have gotten another novel out of him to tickle our fancy or reassure our affable irritability, but we would have gotten the singular treat of watching one of the most inventive minds of our time packaging existence in ways that would have interfaced unexpectedly with all our developing foibles and pointed the way forward for a humanity looking for reasons to trust at last in the ultimate virtue of its boundless silliness.


Further Reading

Of course, if you haven’t had a chance to read The Hitchhiker’s Trilogy yet, that’s something that simply has to happen. The excerpt above is from the posthumous collection of random literary things called The Salmon of Doubt, which also features an interview he gave to American Atheist Magazine back in the day. For biographies, I like M.J. Simpson’s Hitchhiker (2003), which succeeds in finding the facts at the bottom of Adams’s famously faulty recollection of the sequence of events in his life to produce a continuous and true account of his sudden rise and attenuated twilight.