Celebrating the Many Talents of Douglas Adams

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Today would have been Douglas Adams’s 60th birthday, had he not been taken from us so prematurely by a heart attack in 2001, at the age of only 49. Adams was a man of hugely varied talents — as well as a perceptive and frequently hilarious writer and satirist, he was a technological visionary, a social activist, and once played guitar on stage with Pink Floyd. While we adore The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we do think it’s a bit of a shame that the rest of Adams’ work hasn’t enjoyed similar acclaim. So to celebrate and commemorate one of our favorite authors and 20th century visionaries, here’s a selection of the best of his ouevre.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Having said all that, it does seem logical to start our journey through Adams’ work with his masterpiece. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has been translated into some 30 languages since its publication in 1979, spawning four sequels, two feature films, a worldwide Towel Day and, most importantly, an answer to life, the universe and everything — although not the answer that anyone was expecting. Not bad for an absurdist sci-fi novel conceived after a drunken night sleeping in an Austrian field, eh?

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

Adams’ “other” series of novels remains an under-rated delight, time-traveling detective extravaganza that gave the world ideas like the Electric Monk (a robot that believes things for you) and the SEP field (the phenomenon whereby the brain edits out one’s perception of phenomena that it considers to be someone else’s problem). Intriguingly, elements of the novel’s plot were derived from a couple of the scripts that Adams wrote for Doctor Who in the late 1970s. What? You didn’t know Adams worked on Doctor Who? Then read on…

Doctor Who

It’s curious that it only seems to be Doctor Who aficionados who know of Adams’ contributions to the iconic British sci-fi series. Adams was script editor for the show’s 17th season, which was Tom Baker’s penultimate season in the lead role, and also wrote several serials himself: The Pirate Planet in Season 16, City of Death in Season 17 and also the great lost Doctor Who serial, Shada. The latter was to be the finale of Season 17, but was never completed because BBC staff went on strike halfway through its production. Still, despite such setbacks, it sounds like he had a right old time in the job — if the footage above (from the DVD edition of City of Death) is anything to go by, anyway.

Computers

Adams’ love of computers and technology in general was legendary. That’s him with an adventurously-bearded Steve Jobs above, and he was apparently either the first or second person in the UK to own an Apple Macintosh (the other potential holder of this title is longtime Apple cheerleader Stephen Fry). Adams was an early adopter of email and Usenet, contributed to magazines like MacUser and Wired, and was hugely enthusiastic about the evolution the Internet in the 1990s. He was also directly involved in the production of several computer games, as we’ll see in a moment.

Hyperland

But first, Hyperland. For those who grew up with the internet, hypertext is such a familiar sight that it’s easy to lose sight of what a revolutionary concept it once was. Ever the technological visionary, Adams embraced the idea of non-linear information hierarchies wholeheartedly, and produced this 50-minute documentary in 1990 to enthuse about hypermedia’s possibilities. The idea involves Adams falling asleep by a fire and dreaming about how information might be accessed in 2005 — although the author died before seeing how reality might reflect his vision, many of the ideas in Hyperland proved remarkably prescient. The whole film is on YouTube, and is fascinating viewing.

Infocom

Long before hypertext, though, Adams was one of the first writers to see the possibilities of what’s these days known as interactive fiction — graphics-less adventures whereby you interact with the game world via a text-based parser. Back in the 1980s, these works were called plain old “text adventures”, and the genre’s leading light was Massachusetts-based company Infocom. Adams was directly involved in the design of Infocom’s take on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and also wrote another game called Bureaucracy for the company. You can play the former online via Adams’ website, but beware — it may end up eating up a whole lot of your spare time (especially the notorious Babel Fish puzzle!) Click here if you’re up for a challenge. (If you find yourself hooked, we recommend downloading an interpreter and the story file to play it properly — you can’t save your game in the online version.)

Starship Titanic

Adams’ last videogaming venture was Starship Titanic, another notoriously difficult affair published three years before his death. Unlike his earlier work, this had graphics — thoroughly impressive ones, in fact, for their era. But it was also rooted firmly in text adventure traditions, requiring the gamer to interact with the game’s denizens (which included quintessentially Adams characters like an inscrutable robot and an animated bomb) via a parser that understood thousands of words.The game came with a novel by ex-Monty Python type Terry Jones, and also featured a cameo by John Cleese. And speaking of Monty Python

Monty Python

Adams became friendly with Monty Python‘s Graham Chapman in the mid-’70s, and ended up making two brief appearances on the show. He’s also one of two people outside the core Cleese-Palin-Chapman-Jones-Idle-Gilliam group to get a co-writing credit on a Python sketch — he co-authored a sketch called “Patient Abuse” with Chapman for the series’ final episode, which you can see above.

Radio

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy famously began life as a radio play — we’ve embedded the very first episode above — but it certainly wasn’t Adams’ only contribution to the world of the wireless. He scraped together a living during the mid-1970s contributing sketches to various BBC programs, and also produced a series called Last Chance to See about his visits to various parts of the world in search of animals on the brink of extinction. For his contributions to UK radio, Adams was inducted posthumously into the Radio Academy’s Hall of Fame in 2005.

Atheism and humanism

For all that Adams’ work was full of absurdist humor, it was also imbued with a strong social consciousness — reflecting the fact that Adams was a noted atheist, a conservationist and a committed environmentalist. Most of all, though, he was a humanist — “Isn’t it enough,” he once asked, “to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” All these ideas can be found prominently in his work, from Bureaucracy‘s Kafka-but-funnier satire on modern life to the Hitchiker’s Guide‘s vision of the earth being demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Crucially, though, Adams — unlike his great friend Richard Dawkins, it has to be said, who’s talking about Adams above — was never overly didactic or preachy. Adams let his satire do its own work, and it worked wonderfully well — and continues to do so. RIP.