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Celebrating Towel Day: The Ideas of Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas Adams’ imagination was big. Really, really big. I mean, you might think it’s a long way to the chemists, but that’s just peanuts compared to what was going on in Douglas Adams’ brain…

I wrote the preceding paragraph because I’d suggested that it might be a good idea to feature an article about Douglas Adams’ seemingly boundless imagination on Towel Day, the annual celebration of Adams. Then, after writing it, I sat back and thought, “Someone else, somewhere else must have already done something similar: comparing Adam’s imagination to space by riffing off this sequence from Chapter Eight of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”:

‘Space,’ [the in-universe version of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy] says ‘is big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space. Listen…’

And so on.

“Maybe I’ll change it,” I thought. “Maybe I’ll start again.” I didn’t though because the comparison encapsulates, for me, what made Adams such a unique creative force and, by all accounts, such a unique person. His rapacious and seemingly endless curiosity and love of ideas, which, combined with his intelligence, humour, and sense of the absurd, made him one of the most important comic writers of the 20th Century. It’s also what makes him such an apposite [Apposite! I see you’re channelling your inner Pip and Jane Baker there, Badham. Oh well, at least you’re not still calling the main character of our most beloved show ‘Doctor Who’. – Ed.] subject for discussion on a website like The Doctor Who Companion, even more so than the fact that he was the script editor on Season 17 of our favourite programme. Because, like The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Doctor Who is, for the most part, bursting to the seams with ideas.

Consider Genesis of the Daleks. Or Warrior’s Gate. Or The Web Planet. Or The Mind Robber. Or Revelation of the Daleks. Or Logopolis. Or Carnival of Monsters. Or Human Nature (and The Family of Blood). Or World Enough and Time. Or Nightmare of Eden. Each is an Aladdin’s Cave of ideas. Full to the brim with interesting concepts, apt aphorisms [Another Pip and Jane Baker impression there, Badham? – Ed.], curious characters, and seemingly endless twists and turns. Love them or loathe them, no one could accuse any of those stories of lacking ideas. Okay, Doctor Who doesn’t always come through on the ‘throw an infinite number of ideas at the wall and see what works’ front and, indeed, many of its stories that have a more straightforward approach are still highly creditable. (Earthshock, I’m looking at you.)

However, the swirling vortex of ideas that underpins so much of Doctor Who is one of the things that makes it special. And it’s what makes (most of) Adams’ writing special too.

Don’t believe me?

Let’s travel back in time then, like the character of Doctor Who [I don’t want to have to sack you again… -Ed]. Go back to 1979 to find out if I’m right. Stand in a dusty bookshop. Reach out a hand. And pick up a first edition of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which has only just been published, as a reasonably faithful adaptation of its first radio series, which made its debut on Radio 4 in 1978. (You surely already know that The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy has been, amongst other things, a radio series, on television, a series of novels, a film, a computer game, a comic series, and, at one point, I believe, even a towel.) You open the book. Read the opening sequence. And find – perhaps to your surprise, perhaps not if you’ve already heard the radio series – that the opening alone is packed with more ideas than most other novels. Than most other writer’s whole careers. And each idea is thought-provoking and delightfully expressed.

Said opening sequence is a tour de force. The main character of Arthur Dent has yet to appear. The plot has not yet started. All Adams needs to do is to introduce the concept of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, an intergalactic guidebook used by interstellar hitchhikers (a kind of internet to the stars).

He does so, with wit while also, over the course of a few hundred words, offering a dizzying array of ideas. This sequence despite its relative brevity…

(Deep breath)

  • Locates the Earth’s position in space.
  • Makes a really, really good joke around the concepts of evolution, technology, and the arrogance of the human race (“… whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea…”).
  • Takes a pot-shot at our society’s obsession with the acquisition of money over the pursuit of happiness (“… most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy…”).
  • Throws in a second gag that uses evolutionary ideas as its basis (“…some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.”).
  • References the crucifixion and its broad ethical context (“… nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change…”).

And then…

Well, I could go on but I’m only on the book’s fifth paragraph and I feel I’m already somewhat belabouring my point, which is…

Today is Towel Day (a celebration of Adams’ life and works) and there is no better day to dip into The Hitchhiker’s Guide of the Galaxy and remind yourself of Douglas Adams’ genius… Or, indeed, it’s a great time to treat yourself to one of Adams’ other contributions to culture, such as the various stories he wrote and/or script-edited for Doctor Who.

Do yourself a favour: if you haven’t read Hitchhiker’s, then go out and get yourself a copy from your local library or the bookshop. You’re in for a treat. I envy you. Because there’s nothing quite like that first time. And if you have read it, well, maybe it’s time you revisited the book (or the radio series or the television version or the computer game or the towel) and reminded yourself of what a fantastic talent Douglas Adams was.

Matt Badham

Celebrating Towel Day: The Ideas of Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

by Matt Badham time to read: 5 min
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