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Not an iota of doubt

By on Sep 9, 2009 in Reviews, Tech Takes | 3 comments

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To recover from the spectacularly bad writing of Chetan Bhagat, I went back to reading Douglas Adams’s Salmon of Doubt. Once again. By now I have lost count of the number of times I have read DNA’s works. My only regret so far is I that I could never read through his book Last Chance To See – also what he has often said is his most favourite work out of all the ones that he has written. I’m pathologically incapable of appreciating flora and fauna unless there’s accompany dialogue with colourful words. By that I mean a select few Tintin comics of course. All this environmental crap brings images of unwashed hippies to my mind (and more often that not they do fit that description). Douglas Adams is an honourable exception of course, despite the fact that he (partly) climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in a rhino suit that smelled of sweat and Dettol (his words, not mine).

But I digress. American publishers have this curious fascination tagging on subtitles to any and every book to entice readers; probably, they’d have wanted to stick tearaway brochures with scantily clad women praising the book but then that might cost too much. The tagline for Salmon of Doubt is Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time, which contributes to the eerie sense of finality: “This is it. This is the last Douglas Adams work ever to published”.

The Salmon of Doubt book coverAt various points of time, Salmon of Doubt was supposed to be a Dirk Gently novel, a Hitchhiker’s novel, and then a standalone novel but on similar lines to the previous two series’. He was notorious with his publisher for he “loved deadlines, and the whooshing sound they made as they went by”. Tragically, Douglas Adams reached the dead-line in his life way too early than anyone who knew him wanted. And with that, so did the hopes of further gems from this brilliant man.

Soon after his, work started on releasing the Salmon of Doubt even in the unfinished state it was in. This book contains eleven chapters of that unfinished novel, which in the current working stage was a Dirk Gently novel – but DNA stated in interviews that he wanted to use the ideas in the novel for something else. Documents salvaged from his computer were stitched together to make these eleven chapters. Varied ‘versions’ were edited together by Peter Guzzardi, an editor who had worked with DNA.

The rest of the book consists of various speeches, newspaper / magazine articles, interviews, website postings, et al that Douglas made in the years leading up to his death. The book is divided into three sections – Life, containing some short snippets on his thoughts on the world around him; the Universe, a section almost completely devoted to his writings on technology and religion; and Everything, the section which has the unfinished novel along with supplementary material / interviews where DNA spoke on which direction he wanted to take the novel in.

For most readers who haven’t looked beyond his works, The Salmon of Doubt is a huge revelation about what the man was like. Biographical and autobiographical anecdotes from his early life and what he really went through on his road to stardom. His well-reasoned – and totally Apple-worshipping – love for new gadgets and technology. His passionate appeals to save various endangered species. His logically thought out speeches on why religion came to be what it is, and how we should be careful about not ‘throwing out the baby with the bath water’ when trying to replace religious practices with atheism because of their practical uses.

The Salmon of Doubt is a glimpse into the world of a man who realized that common sense presented a lot of answers or potential answers to almost any sort of problem. His trademark style of humour – intellectual, witty and so many other adjectives brims in each and every article. Most of the articles included are from a time when Adams was past the h2g2 / Dirk Gently novel stage and had moved on to endless book signings and lecture tours, so it’s as if you’re getting to a know a different person while at the same time feeling as if this was your best friend in some past life.

Stephen Fry (one of Douglas Adams’s close friends), in the foreword to this book, says:

I advance this is a theory. Douglas’s work…It’s like falling in love. When an especially peachy Adams turn of phrase or epithet enters the eye and penetrates the brain you want to tap the shoulder of the nearest stranger and share it. The stranger might laugh and seem to enjoy the writing, but you hug to yourself the thought that they didn’t quite understand its force and quality the way you do – just as your friends (thank heavens) don’t also fall in love with the person you are going on an on about to them.

That is precisely what DNA’s work makes most fans think like, once you come to truly appreciate them. (At least, that’s the case with me!) The simple fact that his jokes are not “Yo Mama” jokes but ones which require those little grey cells to understand and chuckle about is what makes DNA’s work special – and it is what makes the reader feel special. I already mentioned an excerpt from Douglas Adams’s first Dirk Gently book in an earlier blog post which I found especially funny. Here’s another excerpt from the same book which had me howling with laughter:

“…There are certain events in the past, I’m afraid, from which I would wish to disassociate myself.”
“Absolutely, I know how you feel. Most of the fourteenth century, for instance, was pretty grim,” agreed Reg earnestly.
Dirk was about to correct the misapprehension, but thought that it might be somewhat of a long trek and left it.

I’ve often actually found myself doing what Stephen Fry describes, when some particular turn of events reminds me of something that Douglas Adams wrote about such situations; I end up calling friends randomly from my phonebook. Some of them do get the joke, but not quite. After all, if you randomly called some person whom you haven’t spoken for some time, just because in some movie you saw some cop shouting “Freeze!” to a criminal, and went, “Hey! What’s up? Oh, BTW, Marvin said ‘Freeze? I’m not a refrigerator'” immediately followed by 10 minutes of non-stop laughter then I’m sure my friends have the right to feel thoroughly confused. (I know I don’t make much sense in the last sentence.)

(Note to the ones with whom this has happened: my sincerest apologies. Nah, I’m kidding. I’ve no remorse at all for what I’ve done.)

It doesn’t end with his written works. Depending on whether you are a fan or not a fan, the Hitchhiker’s movie will be the best movie ever or the worst movie ever, or if you fall in the middle ground which gets *some* of jokes then you might chuckle a bit but really not get what the big deal is about. I admit, that if hadn’t read the Hitchhiker’s books then I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the movie on its own. What’s ‘wrong’ with the movie, as many have pointed out, is that it feels as if the novel is being read out by someone rather than a movie screenplay. Whether this what DNA intended or the later scriptwriter (Karey Kirkpatrick) being overcautious after DNA’s death about not deviating too much from Hitchhiker’s is immaterial to me. All that matters is that Douglas Adams wanted every version of h2g2 to contradict the other and thus made the changes from the novels / radio series.

People allege the movie didn’t do that well in the box office; that may well be true but h2g2 fans around the globe made it a success anyway. Roger Ebert correctly called the Hitchhiker’s movie a lovesick puppy – you can either take time to take it under your wings, learn to understand it and come to love it, or you can let it be. Most people let it be. You folks are missing out on something truly magical. (Yes, I do suggest reading the h2g2 books, at least the first one, before you embark on watching the movie.) No matter what others say, I find the movie thoroughly enjoying and it has immense re-watch value, just as you can read his novels as many times as you want without ever getting bored.

And Another Thing book coverA sixth Hitchhiker’s Guide novel has been commissioned by Jane Belson, Douglas Adams’s widow. DNA admitted that Mostly Harmless (the fifth and final book in the h2g2 trilogy) was a terribly bleak book and that he wanted to write another novel to end the series on an upbeat note. Taking that idea forward, this sixth and (now) final book – titled And Another Thing… will be written by Eoin Colfer, best-known for his Artemis Fowl series. (The title comes from a joke in the fourth h2g2 book.) When I first heard about this my first reaction was outrage (“How dare they think anyone can live up to Douglas Adams’s reputation! He. Was. Douglas. Adams.”) and followed by measured scepticism after I had calmed down (“I’ll give Eoin Colfer a chance, but he better not screw it up”). Turns out that Eoin Colfer went through pretty much the same emotions, and was quite apprehensive himself whether he would be able to do the job. Time will tell what happens.

So there is not an iota of doubt in my mind that when And Another Thing hits the bookstores on 11th October 2009, I will be attending Hitchcon 09 where Eoin Colfer has a book-signing session too. And any other events by ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha – the official h2g2 appreciation society. Not an iota of doubting that I will be tweeting the galaxy



3 Comments

  1. Anders Branderud

    September 11, 2009

    Post a Reply

    Hello! I found you’re blog

    You wrote: “His logically thought out speeches on why religion came to be what it is, and how we should be careful about not ‘throwing out the baby with the bath water’ when trying to replace religious practices with atheism because of their practical uses.”

    In my website (bloganders.blogspot.com (see the left menu)) there is one formal logical proof.
    It proofs the existence of a Creator and His purpose of humankind.

    Anders Branderud

    • Ankur

      September 11, 2009

      Post a Reply

      Read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. That’s pretty much what my viewpoint on this issue is.

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