Don't Panic: Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
By Neil Gaiman
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
LETTERS TO DOUGLAS ADAMS
“I'm terribly grateful for the fans - apart from anything else, they provide my bread and butter. I'm obviously delighted there are so many people who enjoy this stuff. But I try to keep a little bit of distance because I believe the most dangerous thing a person can do is believe their own publicity. I know, from people I look up to and admire - for instance, John Cleese: it took me a long time to be able to perceive him as an ordinary human being, and I know how very very easy it is to look at somebody who is actually a perfectly normal human being, who happens to have a particular talent, an ability or facility that puts them into the limelight, to see them as being some sort of very elevated and extraordinary person, which they're not. I think you do yourself a favour if you try not to expose yourself too much to people who are going to tell you you are God's gift to the human race, which you're not. The media present you as being some kind of superhuman, and you aren't, so you just have to keep all that at arm's length.
“It's rather curious when I discover that a phrase of mine has entered the language. I mean, one never seriously thinks that what one gets up to at home has much effect on anything else, and though you see the bestseller lists, and get letters and royalty statements it doesn't impinge on me that it has that kind of effect on other people. I don't want to believe that it does.
“People like me don't make the gossip pages because they don't know our faces. I get the advantages of being famous with none of the disadvantages. It's startling when somebody does recognise me - I feel slightly vulnerable when it occurs. I can understand why writers take a pseudonym. It's strange having an existence in other people's minds which has little to do with you. It's not the same me they wrote about on my school reports.”
- Douglas Adams, on fame, 1985.
Browsing through Douglas Adams's letters file is a truly mind-expanding experience. All human life, and a fair amount of putative alien life, is there. Certain themes, however, tend to recur. Most people wanted to know where he got his ideas. (One American would-be author wanted to know if she could have any leftover ideas he didn't need.) Others asked questions, wanted advice, proposed marriage or sex, and occasionally offered solutions to matters raised in the books.
Three students from Huddersfield University, for example, claim to have discovered the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything…
The Answer to “The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything” is not in fact 42, but is stored in the reproductive cells of all life forms and this answer is found via 42. To explain better: all, or most, cells reproduce by splitting in two to form two cells.
Thus, one cell becomes two, two becomes four… and so on. It follows that the Answer must, therefore be some power of two. Deep Thought came up with the number 42, and this is indeed the power to which 2 must be raised to find this answer…
Thus, by obtaining 242 - 4398046511104 - reducing it to morse code, turning the morse code into letters, rearranging the letters into passable words, and interpreting the Answer thus obtained they were able to work out what the question was. I would not dare to give the game away by revealing it, but will simply say that any Cabbalistic scholar would have been proud of their work. You may reproduce it if you wish.
These are some of the most common questions he was asked…
Q: What was the Dire Straits song from So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish?
A: The Dire Straits song is 'Tunnel of Love' and it's on the Making Movies album.
Q: Did you steal the biscuits story from Jeffrey Archer?
A: The origin of the story about the biscuits was that it actually happened to me at Cambridge Station, England, in 1976; since when I've told the story so often on radio and TV that people have begun to pinch it. This is why I wanted to put it down in black and white myself. I didn't know Jeffrey Archer had used a similar story in A Quiver Full of Arrows (1982) having never read the book. I would point out that the date, 1982, comes somewhat after the date 1976.
Q: What was the Question of “Life, the Universe, and Everything”?
A: The actual question for which Arthur Dent has been seeking has now been revealed to me. It is this:
As soon as I've managed to decipher it - and I'm waiting for someone to send me a primer for the language in which it is written, and it may be some time - I will let you know.
To a thirteen year-old young novelist, who was having great difficulty thinking up names for characters:
A: If you are having trouble in thinking up character names you are probably using the wrong kind of coffee. Have you tried an Italian blend?
Q: How do you mix a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster?
A: I'm afraid it is impossible to mix a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster in Earth's atmospheric conditions, but as an alternative I suggest you buy up the contents of your local liquor store, pour them into a large bucket and re-distil them three times. I'm sure your friends would appreciate this.
Q: What is the point of Doctor Who?
A: The whole point of Doctor Who is that, if you take the second letter of each of the fifty-ninth words of all the episodes over the last twenty years of broadcast and run them together backwards, the original location of the lost city of Atlantis is revealed. I hope this answers your question.
To a student who wished to do a thesis on scientific and philosophical themes in Hitchhiker's:
A: Most of the ideas in Hitchhiker's come from the logic of jokes, and any relation they bear to anything in the real world is usually completely coincidental.
To someone enquiring where Arthur got the copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, and in which pub in Taunton Fenchurch and Arthur met:
A: Although copies of the actual Guide have never been published on Earth, copies of it are freely (or rather, expensively) available throughout the Galaxy. Arthur acquired another one for himself on his journey back to Earth - in other words, between the end of Life, the Universe and Everything and So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. Although I set the pub scene in Taunton, the pub I had in mind was in fact one in Gillingham in Dorset, the name of which (wisely) I forget.
Q: Will you ever novelise the Doctor Who episodes you wrote?
A: As far as The Pirate Planet or City of Death are concerned, although I wouldn't mind adapting them into books at some time in the future, there are far too many other things that I want to do in the meantime. Certainly I don't want anyone else doing them though! As for Shada - no, I don't particularly want to see that done. I think that it's not such a great story, and has only gained the notoriety it has got because no one's seen it. If it had been finished and broadcast, it would have never have aroused so much interest.
Often he received numbered questions, which often got numbered answers:
1) Why did you decide to start writing?
2) What aspects of science fiction are you 'ripping off'?
3) What experiences do you feel affected your attitudes and values?
4) Can your feelings be linked with those of any of the characters in your books?
5) What is your background?
6) Why do you write science fiction rather than normal fiction?
7) Do you enjoy writing?
8) What do you think is your 'style' of writing?
1) Because I couldn't think of anything else to do.
2) Are you sure you mean the same by 'ripping off' as I do?
3) All of them.
4) Some of them.
6) I'm not sure.
1) How long did it take you to write Life, the Universe and Everything?
2) Are any of the characters designed from your own personality?
3) Have you ever considered doing a comic book?
4) Who is your favourite character in the trilogy?
5) Where did you get the inspiration to do your books?
1) Several months.
4) Don't have one.
5) From a mail order company in Iowa.
1) Why did you start to write?
2) Why do you write science fiction?
3) Where do you get your ideas from?
1) Because I was broke.
2) I didn't mean to. I just exaggerate a lot.
3) A small mail order firm in Cleveland.
1) How do you come up with those names?
2) What gave you the idea to write the books?
3) Why this subject?
4) When did you decide to become an author and why?
5) Did you like the results of the books?
6) Why did you put Ford and Arthur on Ancient Earth?
7) How long did it take to write the books?
5) Last Thursday morning.
And finally, a letter that Douglas scrawled answers on, but which was never posted, since the correspondent had omitted his name and address…
1) Do you parallel yourself on any of the main characters? How?
2) How did working with the Monty Python Troupe affect your work?
I didn't. I knew them but did not work with them.
3) How often have you been railroaded or forced into doing something you just didn't want to do (as Arthur Dent in Life, the Universe and Everything)?
4) Do you believe in fate, and do you try to put this idea across in your work?
5) Could you include a short autobiography, including anything that you consider contributing to your work?
Born 1952. Haven't died yet.
6) What is your favourite planet?
Earth. It's the only one I know.
7) Did you do much research before doing the writing?
8) Have you studied history in depth?
9) What is your main message in Life, the Universe and Everything?
No message. If I'd wanted to write a message I'd have written a message. I wrote a book.
10) Have you ever had experiences similar to that your characters have?
11) Have you ever been hounded by the Galactic police for the whereabouts of one Zaphod Beeblebrox?
No. They are fictional characters.
SEX AND THE SINGLE HITCHHIKER
…Since I have such an in-depth knowledge of your work I feel I am worthy of meeting you and chatting to you about our dear friends Trill, Zaphod, and not forgetting miserable Marvin. Please write and let me know when and where you would like to arrange a meeting…
I'm mostly to be found 33,000 feet above Iceland, but if you feel like popping up for a drink I'd be glad to say hello.
Dear Mr Adams,
Rest easy - I'm not a Beverly Hills real estate agent. If you're still unmarried and have no children and you're interested in girls, pick up the phone next time you're in New York City, dial (xxxxx) and ask for Marion. I would love to meet the man behind that silly grin. References furnished on request.
Dear Mr Adams,
Let me start by telling you I'm not a Surrey Estate Agent. (God, the number of letters you must have had starting with that.) I will get straight to the point. I'm formally offering you the opportunity of an affair with me, you have been selected out of many WORLD-FAMOUS writers of humerus [sic] prose to be the recipient of a romantic involvement with me, the duration of which will depend on:
a) Whether [sic] or not we speak the same language, and
b) How good you are at screwing.
The young lady in question said she was five feet eight, nine stone six, a brunette with multicoloured eyes, and described herself as discreet, adventurous, agile, willing to do anything provided it doesn't do me permanent physical damage and I've a good phone manner. Douglas did not reply.
Then there was the fan letter from an American writer, hopefully working on a film script, who explained: It's a lot of work, but I break the monotony getting laid in the back bars by pretending to be you.
Dear Mr Adams,
Thank you for no longer writing about Zaphod Beeblebrox, because I grew to feel a keen sense of identification with him from acquiring two heads, a fleet, and experiencing the Flying City in the Pyramids, your HHGG Corporation Building. At least I deduce it was because the motto was 'Don't Panic' (see Daniel 4:34 because at that very hour the planets were in conjunction).
This is followed by a lengthy ramble through the Bible, and the works of Adams, Castenada and Moorcock, which proves that 42 is really 666, the number of the beast, and concludes…
Well, thanks for all the fish. A word from you might help matters with my girlfriend who doesn't seem to understand I actually lived through your books: If you don't understand this then I'll just give up (“The Gods don't dwell amongst men” Daniel 2:11)…
Dear Mr Adams,
I had a dream this morning that Jack Lemmon came up to me and asked directions to the Royal Albert Hall…
Dear Douglas Adams,
The Answer is not 42; it is 'NAM-MYOTO-RENGE-KYO'. This is the law of life as propounded by Nichiren Derishonin in about 1255 AD…
What age will I be when mankind is born out of mother earth? I am now 34. Do you know Kit Williams's phone number?
Happy Christmas and many of them. I reckon about eight by my digital watch.
“A number of people have said that Hitchhiker's belongs to the same genre as Pilgrim's Progress.
“That's not to compare the two, just to point out that there is a genre with a long history, which is that of the innocent abroad in a fantastical world.
“A graduate student sent me a long paper on one book that we know for sure that John Bunyan (author of Pilgrim's Progress) actually read. It's called The Plain Man's Path to Heaven, written by an English Puritan writer called Arthur Dent. He assumed that I was aware of this and was having some extraordinary academic joke.
“Once you've decided to find parallels you can find them all the time: you can add up numbers, you can compare images… you can pick up any two books and if you wished to prove they were parallel, you could do it. You could pick up the Bible and the telephone directory, and you could prove that each has a direct relationship to the other.”
- Douglas Adams.
THE LAST WORD…
Dear Mr Adams,
You're weird. Or at least your writing is weird. That's okay by me. I'm a little weird myself. If you are really one of those terribly dull people who just write weird please keep it a secret, I hate being disillusioned…
Excerpted from Don't Panic: Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
by Neil Gaiman
Copyright © 2009 by Neil Gaiman.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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