Ahead of the three-year death anniversary in May of sci-fi humourist Douglas Adams, our columnist shares her appreciation for a writer who inspired her.
Today, the Internet exploded with the news of Terry Pratchett’s passing. And I was reminded of you.
I can commiserate with people who feel a personal connection with him. People who write for a living share a relationship with their favourite authors that is special and personal, intimate even. I do not believe I’m exaggerating when I say that they’re so much a part of your life that when they die, a part of you dies too.
I certainly felt that way when I learnt, in the cold epilogue of an anthology, that you’d passed on in 2001, at just 49. There were so many more books inside of you, I was sure. Who would write them now? What else could you have written? I know, such selfish things we humans are, but then, you already know that.
Thinking back, I can’t help being amused by the unlikely way our connection started – in the same way that my most intense relationships start off: most unpromisingly.
It was a gift from my good friend Foops, with only two words on the cover: “Don’t panic.”
I gave it a few cavalier flips before relegating it to my cabinet. I was into Mills & Boon and other bodice-rippers of this ilk back then; never mind that I was holding the landmark work of one of the finest sci-fi humorists that ever walked this earth (or so the back cover blurb claimed).
It was pure serendipity how I eventually got around to reading you.
A few weeks after my sinus operation, I’d mowed through my entire stash of torrid romances. In no condition to pop down to Penang’s book paradise, Chowrasta, to rent another boatload of secondhand paperbacks, I saw your yellowing tome at the bottom of my tower of romance novels.
I opened Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (H2G2) with more resignation than curiosity, expecting to get no further than a couple of pages.
By the time I was done, I was frantic to Google for more Douglas Adams. I was over the moon that there were four more books in the series, plus you’d written a detective series too!
The next miracle took place when a book, by you, that I’d never heard of, peered out of the window display at a bookstore I was passing. The dust jacket of The Salmon Of Doubt: Hitchhiking The Galaxy One Last Time trumpeted: “Culled from Adams’ fleet of beloved Macintosh computers, this selection of essays, articles, anecdotes, and stories offers a fascinating and intimate portrait of the multifaceted artist – as a devout Beatles and Bach fan, radical atheist, enthusiastic technophile, crusading conservationist, and of course, delightful wordsmith.”
I shelled out an obscene amount of money for it, wondering what I’d get out of the book that I’d not got out of The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe; Life, The Universe And Everything; So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish; Mostly Harmless; and the Dirk Gently series.
Best RM55.90 I’ve spent in my life.
To state the obvious, it reminded me why you’re an effing genius. Who else in this world could make a ridiculous premise – the adventures of an intergalactic hitchhiker, who is evicted from Earth when it has to make way for a hyperspace expressway – believable and interesting to someone who passed Form Three General Science by the skin of her teeth?
You did it by making science accessible. You evoked our sympathy for even the most inanimate of objects by humanising it. Your account of a mattress’s dismayed reaction as it listened to the rantings of anal retentive and depressed robot Marvin in H2G2 killed me: “The mattress flurred and glurried. It flolloped, gupped and willomied, doing this last in a particularly floopy way.” H2G2 was a vehicle that transported me back to childhood, when, tucked under bedcovers, I fantasized about my toys coming to life, and you were the driver/navigator/tour guide rolled into one.
Of course, it wasn’t all just thrill rides and adrenalin kicks. Only the most culturally unevolved would miss the sharp satire and social criticism beneath the off-the-wall humour and scientific references.
In H2G2, you poked fun at your countrymen’s obsession with tea, made a dig at the Republican political system via zany three-headed President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox, and made mincemeat out of the municipal road transport council. You elevated goofy humour into a subtle art form.
On a personal level, you showed me how to do marvellous things with the English language. You had a way of making the most banal statements your own, and I’m not talking about just “Don’t Panic”.
You coined words and employed vivid metaphors and analogies that made experiences come alive, without resorting to big words and fancy devices.
But more than that, Salmon Of Doubt showed me you’re so much more than a science fiction writer.
You showed me how well you understand the human experience/condition. It came through in your simplest observations.
Such as: Though I dissolved into horrified giggles, I knew exactly what you meant when you said, “He must be crazy to think I wouldn’t saw off my legs to watch Paul McCartney play in my local pub”.
When you described your underwater jet ski ride in Australia (“Riding the Rays”), I could imagine “the long, slow, balletic curves it let you make through the water” so vividly, even though I’d never ridden or seen one in my life at that point.
You’re the only writer that I can quote whole sentences from. Your easy prowess with words also drove me wild with jealousy. Like, what do I need to do to get to your level?
I could totally relate when Neil Gaiman, in his affectionate tribute to Pratchett, confessed to filching some of the techniques of short humour. Phew, I’m not alone then in mimicking my favourite author in my own work.
I know that you and Pratchett have never met in real life, though you’d be about the same age, and both of you have equally fierce fans.
Maybe now, you two lads can finally get together and have that cup of tea and even co-write a book. My mind combusts just thinking of the fireworks.
Now that I’m a writer, I know how wonderful it feels to get letters from readers telling you that they can relate to our work. So I just wanted to say, thank you for the ride, Douglas.
Without you, mucking around on this mostly harmless planet wouldn’t be nearly this fun.
■ Alexandra Wong feels a pang every time May 11 rolls around – it’s the day Douglas Adams died, in 2001.