To be funny, not exactly laugh out loud funny, but comical enough to put a smile on a reader’s face and supplant their loyalty making them a lifelong fan is no easy feat. But, I dare say, that was one of the major accomplishments of English author, radio host, and sometimes television writer Douglas Adams.
While he’s well known in the pantheon of science fiction lore due to the success of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, he’s a bit lesser known— to American readers at least — is his work on the airwaves serving as a scriptwriter for the British Broadcasting Corporation from 1978 to 1980.
And that’s a shame because the pessimistic worldview of Arthur Dent and company was first introduced in a 12-part radio series.
Back then, Adams’ satirical style was greatly needed in the often serious world of science fiction storytelling. While the genre was no stranger to expansive worlds, witty and intelligently funny prose was sparse in the late ’70s and throughout the ’90s when his works first gained acclaim.
But what made Adams’ so relatable, memorable, and what really allowed his humor to hit home were the referenceable phrases and ideas that he presented in his works.
Dolphins and Their Place in the Universe
One of the first big ideas that Adams introduces to readers is that the Earth as a place isn’t important. In fact, humans aren’t even important. This strikes at the existential core of Adams’ work. And he makes this easier to swallow by his prose.
Take this excerpt from the beginning of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
“The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ but in fact, the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish.”A musical number from the film adaptation. (Touchstone Pictures)
What does this brief passage tell us?
A few things: one is that dolphins are more important than other intelligent life on Earth. So much more important, in fact, that they have been alerted that the Earth is going to be destroyed to make way for an intergalactic expressway, which nicely mirrors Arthur’s home being demolished.
Humans, on the other hand, have no warning at all. Everything on the planet, except the dolphins, are obliterated almost meaninglessly. It’s this absurdity that lies behind all of his works and story choices that make him super memorable.
This brings us to one of the biggest points in The Hitchhiker’s Guide:
What Is the Meaning of Life, The Universe, and Everything?
42. That was his conclusion. The answer to all of life’s questions is 42.
Why? Why would Adams pick this seemingly random number? Is there a deeper meaning here that we aren’t privy to? After all, this is the question that philosophers have been pondering forever. Hell, it’s a question we all ponder from time to time, especially in our teenage years when we’re all in our deep phase.
So, in typical Adams fashion, he chose it at random:
“The answer to this is very simple,” Adams was quoted in The Independent.
“It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one. Binary representations, base 13, Tibetan monks are all complete nonsense. I sat on my desk, stared into the garden and thought 42 will do. I typed it out. End of story.”
And there you have it. Adams sat down and wrote it out. In his words: end of story, which seems to also be saying “hey, stop asking me this question. It was a joke. Good day.”
The Babel Fish: A Simple Solution to a Story Problem
One of the most memorable Adams’ references comes from the Babel fish. It’s the method his inter-galaxian creatures conduct universal communication.
This creature absorbs and digests sounds and filters them through brainwaves when placed in the ear. The result is a clear understanding of the speaker in the wearer’s native tongue. Like the Vogans, for example.
Here’s how Adams put it:
“Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”
Now, as you can probably guess, this creature seems to be there only to solve a fundamental story problem: How do you have so many different creatures from so many different galaxies yet they all speak English?
The real genius here is that Adams knew that people would see this. So he leaned into the problem, saying:
“Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that something so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.”
Adams sees what's coming and has an answer before you can even critique it. It’s this level of world-building and general creative thought that makes him a blast to read.
Adams: The Ideas Guy
While Adams is great on a line by line level, it’s these really impactful ideas that keep us coming back and keep Adams in the zeitgeist even when there isn’t a new movie reboot or special edition release of the novels.
So, the next time you pick up The Hitchhiker’s Guide — or maybe check out the BBC version — pay attention to how he explores these unique ideas, which at first glance make zero sense, come to life in the novel so much that you actually end up somewhat believing them yourself.
Patty Nicole Johnson is a science fiction author and a marketing manager at an IT firm. When not persuading enterprise organizations to take the digital transformation leap, she’s inviting speculative fiction readers to explore futuristic narratives through a social lens. Her short stories can be found here.
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