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Jewish World Review May 17, 2001 / 24 Iyar, 5761

Mark Lane

Mark Lane
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Consumer Reports

Galaxy guide missed by human cult -- YOU would have to be a pretty thorough reader of obituary pages to have noticed the death of Douglas Adams. That's so wrong.

The author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"     (PAPERBACK) died of heart failure after a workout in a California gym. He was 49. It was a very "Hitchhiker's Guide" touch for the author to die in a place identified as "a health club."

When the obit writers unpacked their adjectives, the one they tended to find was "cult," as in "cult novel" and "cult following."

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" sold 15 million copies. It says something about the publishing industry when 15 million readers are "a cult."

Cult, indeed. You want cult literature? What about the Great Circling Poets of Arium who throw stones at unwary travelers to force them to listen to recitations of their protracted epics? Now, that's cult writing.

Satire just gets no respect. And science fiction also gets no respect. Put them together and you get something nobody except 15 million readers with a sense of humor could love.

Had Adams written mediocre minimalist short stories and brick-sized post-modern novels aimed at demolishing the concept of narrative, he would have gained more glowing final notices. Bad, big books trump good satire in the literary reputation department.

Instead, this is regarded as mere comedy-writing. Something for Trekkies, Mensans, undergrads, propeller heads and assorted nerds. A cult, and not a very scary one at that.

For noncultists, it should be explained the title refers to a guidebook for intragalactic travelers. Earth's entry in the guide? One word: "harmless." Later amended to two words: "mostly harmless."

Needless to say, it is not a perfect guide, but it makes up for its shortcomings with its cover that has the words "Don't Panic" in big, friendly letters.

There are five books in the "Hitchhiker's Guide" trilogy. How can five books be a trilogy? Because science fiction novels are supposed to be trilogies, that's why.

The trilogy is picaresque storytelling on a galactic scale. "Picaresque" is a fancy word for stories about people traveling around, bumping into colorful situations and moving to the next thing without a lot of beginning, middle and end. That's why the series could have gone on for as long as Adams lived. That's why the movie never got done.

The work itself had a picaresque life. It began in 1971 as something of a private joke. Adams turned it into a radio play in 1978. He then spun the radio play into a book.

Adams wrote hard and funny. He was famous for procrastination, writer's block and compulsive rewriting. He had more ideas than he could fit into his stories, so the stories expanded endlessly. That he completed anything was due only to last-minute pressure. ("I love deadlines -- I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.")

He turned in the manuscript to the first "Hitchhikers Guide" late and incomplete. Yet contrary to everyone's expectations -- especially Adams' -- it took off. New books and dramatizations followed, each unsuccessfully attempting to resolve the plots in the previous ones. Their very convolutedness -- like his inability to wrap everything up in a trilogy -- became part of the joke.

The great cosmic joke of "The Hitchhiker's Guide" is always worth retelling. That we live in a very big and wonderful universe. That any attempt to neatly explain it -- even in guidebook form -- will land people in the most wonderful trouble. That any attempt to find one big answer to life, the universe and everything will take you into unexpected neighborhoods from Islingtonto the Restaurant at the End of the Universe and not leave you much wiser.

And that small reassurances count. That's why the most important piece of gear for galactic travel is a towel and a book that tells you, "don't panic."

Sadly, with Adam's death that universe just contracted.

Comment on JWR contributor Mark Lane's column by clicking here.

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© 2001, M. R. Lane