The Universe is Sad Today

Gaiman was lovely, tooA tweet from Stephen Fry reminds me that today is the tenth anniversary of the death of Douglas Adams, author of “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and one of the best nature books I have ever read, “Last Chance to See”.

I still have trouble articulating exactly why Adams meant so much to me. I discovered the “Hitch-Hiker’s” trilogy when I was in high school, and fell in love instantly with its whimsical absurdity. I watched the BBC series, bought his Infocom text games (still have ’em!) and of course read everything that had his name on it.

In the world before the Internet, that meant blindly waiting for long, long stretches of time with no idea what was happening next. Adams wasn’t the speediest author, and his work came in dribbles. (“I love deadlines,” he famously said. “I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”) But when something finally did arrive, it was always worth it; even the lesser “Hitch-Hikers” books had moments of brilliance, narrated in Adams’ wonderfully calming voice.

I got to interview him in 1992, when “Mostly Harmless” brought him to Toronto for the Harbourfront Author’s Festival. We had lunch, actually, at the Harbour Castle, and I remember being barely able to formulate a question. There was so much I wanted to ask him that I very nearly vapor-locked.

We started with the kakapo, and everything was fine. He was a wonderful inteview — generous with anecdotes, and willing to bounce all over the breadth of his career as my brain burped up other bits of ephemera.

I suspect this wasn’t the first time Adams had found himself speaking to a goggling 24-year-old, though. I’d like to believe he knew the almost seismic impact he’d had on his young readers; imagine what it’s like for a kid who’s grown up on Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke and Frank Herbert to suddenly realize that science fiction didn’t have to be dry and intellectual; that it could be wry and lively and even a little demented, and still carry philosophical weight and engage with big ideas.

Douglas Adams let me see the world differently. I’m so lucky to have had the chance to tell him so in person. If you haven’t read any of his stuff, well, now you have something to do today.

4 thoughts on “The Universe is Sad Today”

  1. I second the Bradbury wounding (if such a thing can be done).

    I always _wanted_ to love Adams, and respect the structure that he could weave out of things just shy of all-out absurdity, but always came away feeling that I’d read something delicately balanced between clever, insufferably smug and rather twee (great essays though, especially when Apple didn’t come into it). This has brought me accusations of not having a soul, a heart, or any taste. When Adams died, I thought it was a shame and agreed that we needed more like him around, just not too close to me.

  2. Crap — the Bradbury thing was an editing mistake on my part. I’d originally written something much more complex about how Bradbury’s sci-fi was always melancholy or regretful, which led into the thing about Clarke and Herbert being dry and intellectual. I thought I’d cut the first section out entirely, but obviously I screwed that up.

    Entirely my bad. I actually really like Bradbury’s work; he just never seemed willing to let his characters have any fun, except for that day when the rain stopped. And we all know how that ended …

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