Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Ranking the Douglas Adams books

It must be over a decade since I've read a proper Douglas Adams book, rather than leftovers or pretenders. The Hitchhiker's Guides were a revelation in my late teens, and I've always wished I'd read them when I was younger and even more impressionable. But would they still hold up now I'm old and (even more) miserable?

I'm almost worried to find out. Don't panic! Or was that Dad's Army? Here's what I reckon about The Top 12 Douglas Adams Books and Not Quite Douglas Adams Books.

Wholly remarkable key:

Dirk Gently

Not Douglas Adams

12. Douglas Adams's Starship Titanic, by Terry Jones (1997)

My #358 book of 2015 (out of 365). I wasn't going to bother with tangential books based on Adams scripts and pitches, like the various Doctor Who ones. But since I've covered this one already, it's worth repeating the public safety notice:

It might not be the absolute worst book I've read this year, but considering the talent involved, it's certainly the biggest let-down.

Going in, I was already a bit suspicious about a novel based on a 90s computer game (presumably much more enjoyable) based on a brief aside from one of the Hitchhiker's books, desperately tagging on Douglas Adams' name as if (real author) Terry Jones wasn't already appealing enough. Maybe there was a reason for that.

He may have had a hand in some of the finest comedies of all time, but this cheap Douglas Adams knock-off isn't among them. The only really funny thing about it is that it's available to read online in alphabetical order, if you are completely insane.

11. And Another Thing..., by Eoin Colfer (2009)

The only reason this money-grabbing estate-endorsed fan fiction is acceptable at all is that it follows on from the terminal downer of Mostly Harmless, which had spoiled the series a little already. It's like when they brought back The X-Files and Twin Peaks: the damage was already done back in the day, so don't worry about it. I could handle its existence. I was even prepared to enjoy it, unlikely as that seemed.

It's an affectionate but pointless imitation. Like many geek brand reprisals of recent years, it's more reliant on referencing things you know ("Wowbagger, whoo!" etc.) than making any memorable contributions of its own. We're lifted out of depression back into mania, and we slide backwards into the zany, zig-zagging style of the early books that Adams had decided to move on from 25 years earlier.

It would have been more interesting if they hadn't gone with the inevitably provocative Douglas Adams stand-in thing, and had let Colfer (and any other writers they wanted to invite along) write some Hitchhiker's stories in their own distinctive styles. Don't worry about fitting them into canon, we've got an abundance of canons.

10. Mostly Harmless (1992)

The Douglas Adams bibliography isn't extensive to begin with, so it feels strange and ungrateful to debate whether we'd have been better off if his final book hadn't been written. But it's a rather dull, depressing and spiteful whimper for the Hitchhiker's series, which is all the worse since the previous book went out on such a high note.

I get the impression he wasn't in the best mood when he wrote/churned this one. Petty venting has been a foundation of the series ever since Arthur Dent lay down in front of a bulldozer, but it all comes out a lot more bitter this time. One character is ruthlessly dispatched off-page for no good reason, just when we were getting to know her. Ford's still having uninteresting B-stories to pad out the spare chapters, and Zaphod still isn't.

If he didn't want to write Hitchhiker's, couldn't he have done a third Dirk Gently or something else instead, rather than taking out his frustration on these characters? I didn't hate it, but there's nothing I could pin down as a highlight either.

9. The Meaning of Liff / The Deeper Meaning of Liff (with John Lloyd, 1983/90)

Great idea for a newspaper column, a whole book is overdoing it a bit. What do you mean you don't have to read it from cover to cover in one sitting?

It's less the sort of thing you'd buy yourself, more something you're likely to receive as a Christmas gift if you're known to be a fan of Douglas Adams, wit or just humour in general, that ends up in the charity shop when the appropriate gratitude period has passed.

8. The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time (2002)

My #80 book of 2015. I'm not going to dissect and discuss its components individually, because it all makes for a nice, nicely uneven collection. Here's what I thought last time:

I'd dipped in and out of this memorial miscellany a couple of times over the years, but this is the first time I fully committed and saw how some of the most (seemingly) arbitrary entries on quantum physics and imperfectly brewed cups of tea take on special significance when the same thought processes make their way into Adams' tragically incomplete final novel. It's not only moving, but educational too - whether you become a lifelong devotee of Bach or Procol Harum.

7. The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul (1988)

The So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish of Dirk Gently, this is more stripped-down, domestic and comparatively normal than the first book, which isn't difficult. To go in the other direction would have risked all of our marbles (wish he had though). That's not to say it's entirely sane by any means, just that its Norse gods and ravenous Bugblatter-style beasts are more evenly balanced by mundane gripes about airports and pizza delivery.

After the impressive truancy of his debut, it only takes until chapter three for Dirk to show up this time, and getting to spend more time with the post-eccentric detective is the best thing about it. It's disappointing that his Watson didn't hang around, but his substitute ends up being Adams' most well-developed female character. Presumably, if The Salmon of Doubt had been completed as intended, it would have followed tradition and dispatched Kate most cruelly and efficiently in a horrific between-books accident.

Favourite bit?: Mr. Elwes, the mental patient whose speech has become inexplicably synchronised with Dustin Hoffman's. It has no bearing on the plot.

6. Life, the Universe and Everything (1982)

Sorry to disappoint my smugly contrarian teenage self, but I've come to the pathetically mainstream conclusion that this isn't possibly the best of the lot after all. Sell-out.

There are still a few classic bits in it, but after the coherent Restaurant, we've clearly ventured into unnecessary-but-nice sequel territory now, as Arthur and Ford find themselves unable to resist getting into more wacky scrapes across space and time. This is the first time I've read it since knowing it's based on a failed Doctor Who script that the boring bastards decided was too silly to make. Now I can't unsee Slartibartfast as a clumsy Tom Baker stand-in.

Favourite bit?: The revelation about flying: learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. One of those concepts like ghosts or the afterlife that I know is just someone's fanciful idea, but hold out a tiny, irrational glimmer of hope for anyway.

5. Last Chance to See (with Mark Carwardine, 1990)

Adams' books are arguably best in audio form. He read nearly all of them himself, which is even better, but if you were going to listen to him narrate just one, it should be this wildlife travelogue memoir starring his actual self.

It's another radio series 'novelisation' that this time uses its extra breadth to go more in-depth, personal and scatterbrained, rather than contradicting itself and splitting off another Last Chance to See multiverse.

I found it insightful and affecting when I first read/listened to it, but listening again after travelling around and seeing more of the world, its creatures and its thoughtless overlords, I appreciate it a lot more. Even just for the cathartic travel frustrations.

4. So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (1984)

I used to think of this series in terms of the classic original trilogy plus the two slightly disappointing later ones, but I always had the nagging suspicion that SLATFATF (great acronym) was a bit more grown-up than the previous books. Now that I've finally caught up, I appreciate it as a fine coda to the classic trilogy of four, before the still-disappointing other one. I much prefer it to the previous one.

It's primarily a rom-com, and a really good one, which is the first shock. It's mostly Earth-bound, which is another, and not only because that planet was supposed to have been demolished several books ago. There's a female character with more than a few functional lines of dialogue! It's not as frivolously zany any more, but it hasn't lost any of its wit, and with Ron McKenna the reluctant rain god and Wonko the Sane and his inside-out house, Adams hasn't lost the knack. Even if it was becoming notoriously torturous to get him to use it, to the point that he had to be besieged by his publishers until he bloody well delivered.

This is probably to blame for the less perfect(/Prefect) bits, namely the dull and distracting chapters with Ford that probably should have been consigned to the same bin as whatever hypothetical scenarios the other, entirely absent characters might have been involved in. But it all somehow meanders its way to a satisfying and surprisingly uplifting climax.

Favourite bit?: The willfully mood-shattering final line right after that emotional climax. "Luckily, there was a stall nearby where you could rent scooters from guys with green wings."

3. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980)

The first time I read it, this more ponderous and conspiratorial sequel was a bit of comedown after the hectic babel-fish-out-of-water madness of the first book. It was easily my least favourite of the original (actual) trilogy.

This time, I appreciated its shift in character focus to Zaphod, after the Earthman had his story in the first book. But it doesn't fully commit to that, and we end up in a satisfyingly symmetrical finale with Arthur and Ford instead, which is good too. The ensemble scenes in-between are still the best, although Adams didn't seem to share this sentiment, as the gang hardly ever gets back together after this one.

Not as good as the first one, because that was the first one. But considering most of this also originated in the first radio series, you could look at it more as a second half of the first one than a second one. Because this "trilogy" needed to be more complicated.

Favourite bit?: The Golgafrinchans setting up a row of useless phone boxes on prehistoric Earth just so the telephone sanitisers have something to keep them busy.

2. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979)

Normally I'd defer to seniority and insist that the radio series should be considered the definitive version, but this time I might have to concede to its novelisation. It's almost exactly the same as the first four radio episodes, but it picks the right one of multiple choice climaxes that keeps things cohesive rather than too loose and episodic.

I don't have much else to add that hasn't been said already. I didn't get any new insights out of this re-read, which was more like sticking a video on for the umpteenth time, but since the radio and TV series were fresher in my memory, it was the narrator's descriptions and digressions between the familiar dialogue that were the most entertaining this time.

Favourite bit?: When the narrator becomes concerned that we won't be able to handle the tension of an imminent scene, so spoils the major plot points and only leaves out the minor detail of who bruises their arm to maintain a smidgen of suspense. I could go on, but I'd be here all day.

1. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987)

When Douglas Adams moved on from the Hitchhiker's Guide (at least for a while) and decided he wanted to write something new, he didn't hold back. Rebounding from the painfully squeezed-out and minimalist So Long..., the author treats himself to a massively indulgent, messy and explosive wank.

Dirk Gently's convoluted "investigation" is a lot less accessible than Arthur Dent's improbable galactic odyssey, and gratification is severely delayed. The book takes so long positioning all its seemingly incompatible playing pieces that the title character doesn't even show up until nearly half-way through. I started to doubt my hazy memories of this supposedly being one of the good ones (not that I'd fully understood or appreciated it the first time I read it). But have patience and you'll be rewarded with a masterpiece of insane genius.

Just be sure to at least read Coleridge's 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,' the Wikipedia introduction to 'Kubla Khan' and to read this book at least twice, and you should have no problem wrapping your head around it. Though I'm still not sure exactly what's going on with Bach.

Favourite bit?: That it does explain what's going on with that sofa, eventually.

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