The philosophical jokester
When he died of a heart attack at age forty-nine, Douglas Adams was eulogized in the press as a "one-off talent". Which was to say that he was unique. Or perhaps that no one knew what to call him. A novelist? A comedian? A science-fiction writer? A philosopher? A fantasist?
To pin him down, critics are tempted to use those convoluted references they love, like "Lewis Carroll on a cosmic scale", "Kurt Vonnegut mixed with Samuel Beckett and strained through Monty Python", or "Jonathan Swift via Woody Allen and Spike Milligan."
Or serious literary types just dismiss him as a jokester. A writer of popular trash with a few ideas picked up from Philosophy 101 and old Doctor Who episodes.
I don't know yet if his writing has any lasting value. Maybe not. But it's a hoot to read while it lasts. And it's already had a big effect. His writing is so entertaining and seemingly easy that hordes of writers have tried to cop his style in the past several decades, but none successfully. You find bits of Adams's wit and off-the-wall narrative in many contemporary works but no one has put together the complete imaginative package he did.
Of course, his name is forever linked—as he had feared—with one title, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. But this title can mean many things, from the radio scripts he wrote in the late 1970s that started it all, or the first novel, or the "trilogy" of five novels, or the television series, or the comic books, or the albums, or the computer game, or the movie whose script he was working on before his early death.
The Hitchhiker saga began in 1978 as radio scripts for BBC Radio 4 where Adams worked as a writer and producer. He'd been born Douglas Noel Adams and raised in Cambridge, studying English literature at the famous university there. The Hitchhiker radio series told the story of Arthur Dent who escapes Earth a few seconds before it is destroyed—due to a galactic, bureaucratic foul-up—to roam the universe with his extraterrestrial friend Ford Prefect. It's a twisting, exhilarating ride of cosmic adventures, profound philosophical questions and very much silliness.
The next year Adams's novel treatment of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy appeared and became a phenomenon, selling over fourteen million copies. He completed the Hitchhiker's trilogy with the resolution of the bizarre story in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980) and Life, the Universe and Everything (1982). But, as often seems to happen with wildly successful "trilogies", the series was continued with further instalments, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (1984) and Mostly Harmless (1992).
Around the time of the first two books, he was writing the BBC television mini-series based on the same material. He went on to develop a script with more material for a planned Hitchhiker movie as well, although it did not come out until several years after his death.
In another galaxy not so far away....
Adams's works outside the Hitchhiker's series are also tremendously clever. They include the two novels featuring Dirk Gently, Adams's metaphysical sleuth. If you read them after the Hitchhiker's books you'll find them just as simply written but with much more complicated plots, like mystery novels but involving aliens, ghosts, gods and literary references.
To understand the ending of the first one, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987), you have to know one clue from the real world that is not given in the novel: Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan" was never completed because the poet's writing was interrupted by someone at the door, and so the poem has only one part, not two parts as you are led to believe in the first part of the novel. With this knowledge you may join the throngs who have raved about this book.
The second Dirk Gently book, The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul (1988), has a great title of course (taken from a Hitchhiker Book) and begins with the famous line: "It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the expression 'as pretty as an airport'." But the rest, in which Gently tangles with Nordic gods who walk the earth neglected by humanity is somewhat of a confusing and inconsequential mess with only intermittent clever bits.
Adams also collaborated with John Lloyd on The Meaning of Liff (1984) and an expanded version, The Deeper Meaning of Liff (1990), a kind of dictionary that redefines existing place names as previously unnamed common things and experiences. Liff (a Scottish village), for example, was redefined as a book whose contents give the lie to its cover blurb.
Last Chance to See (1990) is an account of his and zoologist Mark Carwardine's worldwide search for endangered animal species—Adams's own favourite book but also his least-selling and hardest to find.
The Salmon of Doubt (2002) is a posthumous collection of letters, essays, eleven chapters of an unfinished Dirk Gently novel, and other odds and ends. Frustrating and poignant, given that it ends so abruptly, like a badly retold Adams story. But it is also interesting in giving perspectives on the many sides of the man who was intensely enraptured by both science and literature. We can play with seeing his own work as a amalgam of all his own stated idols, including musicians Bach and the Beatles; scientists Richard Dawkins and Richard Feynman; comics Monty Python; and writers Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, P.G. Wodehouse, Kurt Vonnegut and Ruth Rendell.
And we can speculate how his writing might have developed further in startling ways that would again challenge our own imaginations.