The loss of a human being is a grand but intangible event, particularly when it is sudden and unexpected, as was the death of Douglas Adams in May 2001, difficult to process and accept at the time, like some wild joke waiting for a bizarre punchline which would reframe the entire event which is still due to arrive over two decades later, and that his absence in a world which he would have delighted in and criticised with equal energy is still felt is an indicator of how incalculable the size of the hole he left is.
Best known for The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in its various forms including a radio show, a series of books, several stage plays and a feature film, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency managed more than a few of those iterations itself, while two of his three Doctor Who scripts are famous for different reasons, the absolutely exquisite City of Death starring Tom Baker and Lalla Ward regarded as one of the finest serials and reaching a record audience of sixteen million and the first time extensive location filming abroad was undertaken, and Shada because it was never broadcast.
These the headlines of a life lived large and publicly, there are many other stories and anecdotes and encounters not so familiar, investigated, organised and more or less chronologically arranged by long-time friend and collaborator Kevin Jon Davies who has drawn copious material from papers, notes, publications, pitches, proposals and correspondence to compile 42: The Wildly Improbable Ideas of Douglas Adams, with additional contributions from friends and associates who knew him well, among them Stephen Fry, Neil Gaiman and Dirk Maggs.
With early items including discussions mocking skinheads while simultaneously praising the honesty of their actions, approval undeserved by the fickle hypocritical hippies, and an article on property development which pleads for progress not for the sake of it but because it is needed and done correctly, Adams is able to stream great reams of prose from apparently very small starting points, often saying little of substance but always entertainingly so.
Always an observer of the challenges, frustrations and absurdities of everyday life, a comedy sketch on delayed trains is transcribed fifty years after the fact emphasising how little has changed but also how ephemeral culture can be despite the unseen effort which went into creating it, a vast undertaking propping up a brief moment in time which then vanishes, most often forever, and praise is due to Davies for rescuing these preserved but hidden passages to present them to a wider audience for the first time, one of the most fascinating Secret Empire, an unrealised project whose ambitious structure can be seen reflected decades later in Foundation.
Doctor Who and the Guide adequately covered in other publications, the coverage is brief but insightful, a scene breakdown of The Pirate Planet, a reference to parallel Earths alive and well and safe from Vogons in an early outline a surprise when the idea would not be broadcast until years later although with hindsight it was always apparent in the ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha designation, but through many of the notes, sketches and drafts is the frustration of writing, creatively and physically, the process of edits and revisions always accompanied by the nagging voice of doubt.
What is also evident is that while he put so much of himself in his writing that it was easy to feel that we all knew Douglas Adams, beyond the famous words was also the impact he had on people, his wide readership and the many he interacted with directly, the friends he hosted at his home, encouraged in their own artistic endeavours, offered support to, gave connections from his own eclectic black book of useful contacts, a man who were he still here would understand how we feel in a changing and seemingly directionless world and would see no contradiction in celebrating a ghastly prediction come true while simultaneously offering a guiding hand and a shoulder to cry on through dark and difficult times.
42: The Wildly Improbable Ideas of Douglas Adams is available now from Unbound