Douglas Adams

A man who knew at all times, without fail, where his towel was.

Some people claim he was an alien, but you know, a nice alien like E.T., not some bastard like Predator or Jar Jar Binks.

Just The Facts

  1. Douglas Adams was literally a literature giant and a literate giant.
  2. He is best known as the author of "The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy", which is an absurdist satire of sciene fiction, and the basis of the first cult composed of nothing but geeks.
  3. Adams also used his verbal gifts to help scientists explain real-world ideas in ways that didn't involve six syllable words.
  4. He concieved of and documented many uses for the common bath towel, such as combat, shelter, and food.
  5. Adams had a keen interest in the effects of drinking on intelligent people, and discovered that you can get past writers block by drinking vast amounts of alcohol, blacking out, and waking up in a cow field.

His Background

Douglas Adams was born in England in 1952, and began growing quickly. Even as a kid, his teachers noticed his verbal skills, and by the time he was 12, he was being called a great writer. At 12 years old, he was also a nearly unbelievable SIX FOOT FIVE INCHES tall. Lucky for him, he did stop growing at that point, or else he might have been unable to fit in his own house. The Father Christmas in Harrod's also dropped the suit over the whole broken femurs thing. The upside to this being a giant business for the young Adams was that he NEVER lost at dodgeball. Ever.

At some point, he managed to smash his nose in with his own knee. Even Adams wasn't sure how he did it. Though it did pop back up, so he didn't have a flat face, it did leave him unable to breathe normally through it, so one of the world's smartest men was forced to go through life with his mouth hanging open like a big doofus.

When he went to college, he based his decision on which school's comedy opportunities were best, and then did very little work on academics (but he graduated anyway). Adams also began working at BBC radio. No one understand how the BBC really works, only that no TV program, no matter how good, can ever make more than six episodes per year. All of their funding is tied up in appropriate swearing and showing breasts in a tasteful context. While in college, Adams met Graham Chapman, who liked Adams' material, and helped get him a few bit parts in Monty Python's Flying Circus (in what can only be called the best internship deal ever).

Graham Chapman, posing with a disarmed* opponent
*(also dislegged)

While Adams was struggling to get by during his early writing career, he decided to take a job as a bodyguard. It didn't matter much that he was a big science nerd, since he was a really big science nerd who could throw assailants out windows or down stairwells. Like most bodyguards, he worked for crazy rich foreign people.

What's all this bullshit about Towels?

We're just about to get to that part. It involves Douglas Adams' characters fleeing from the earth, and finding out the many uses of towels and their applications in space-travel survival. The towel became a symbol of his humor among geeks. One of the first things we learn is that anyone who doesn't have his head up his ass, and is ready for adventure, (and is a generally cool motherfucker) is someone who "Knows Where His Towel Is". If you don't know where your towel is, you won't be prepared to fend off trouble OR have a good time. Don't worry, if you haven't already heard enough about the damn towels, we will get back into them more later.

The Hitchhiker's Guide Radio Series

While working for BBC, Adams had an idea for a sci-fi comedy radio series about the earth getting destroyed. The idea turned into the original Hitchhiker's Guide radio series, and BBC radio began broadcasting it in March of 1978.

It quickly became a hit, and Adams started work on a stage show adaptation. Things were held up when he was hired as a script editor Dr. Who, where he was eventually he was moved up to being a writer for the show.

Douglas Adams Writes Some Books

The Meaning of Liff

His first books actually weren't the Hitchhiker's Guide books. "The Meaning of Liff" was a dictionary of made up words, somewhat like sniglets, written with John Lloyd, and was followed by a second volume, "The Deeper Meaning of Liff".

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

At some point Adams realized that the radio idea might work better as a book, and it seems like he was onto something. By telling the story in greater detail, and adding every ridiculous footnote and tangent he could think of, he ended up producing an unusual piece of literature which was soon called a comedy masterpiece, and still is to this day. The first book, "The HitchHiker's Guide to the Galaxy" was published in 1979, and details the misadventures of Arthur Dent and his weird friend Ford.

Dent is a normal british guy with extremely bad luck. He wakes up with the mother of all hangovers, and finds a bunch of bulldozers outside his house, ready to demolish it. His attempts to sort this out don't work very well, but his friend Ford Prefect shows up, and leads him away to the pub for drinks. Not only does Ford reveal that he is an alien, but he explains that Arthur's house isn't the only thing getting demolished. Some serious asshat aliens have parked their ships nearby, and are getting ready to toast the whole earth. They're armed with planet-wrecking beams and really bad poetry, and they aren't about to leave without making everyone suffer one way or another.

The human mind can only be exposed to so much bad poetry before it tries to self-destruct.

Luckily, Ford has an escape plan: hitchhiking aboard one of the alien ships, and stowing away until they can figure out something better. Ford explains how important towels are, and they start using towels to help them along. Lucky for them, Ford is also a freelance writer for "The HitchHikers Guide to the Galaxy", a handy electronic book for space travelers. The Guide itself is basically like a weird alien blackberry, and it has various unusual functions, as well as being full of useful (and completely bizarre) information. Ford also sticks a Babel Fish in Arthur's ear, to help him understand what the aliens are saying (the fish eats alien languanges, and craps out english into your ear for you).

If you are getting the idea that this might be a fairly insane story, you're totally right. It stays weird and wacky, and before long Arthur is meeting with Trillian, a woman he thinks he met back on earth; Marvin, an overintelligent and completely depressed android; and Zaphod, who is Ford's crazier cousin (part of his problem is that he has two heads, and they don't entirely get along), as well as being a wanted felon and President of the Galaxy.

Arthur and the crew get into a number of bizarre adventures and situations, which continue through the course of the 5 book trilogy.

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

After a few Hitchhiker's Guide books, Adams decided to try a slightly different genre; this time a story about Dirk Gently, an eccentric psychic detective who only uses bizarre methods and seems to only get weird cases. An increasingly improbable sequence of events fouls up history, but also leads Dirk to the solution.

This was followed by a sequel, "The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul", where Dirk tangles with eagles, lawyers, the gods of Asgard, and his own putrid refrigerator. Despite having mentioned tea many times, this was the first time it was given a place in the title, and the Queen herself personally thanked Adams for advancing the cause of tea by several years.

Britsh people are powered by tea.

What About His Games?

Don't worry, we're not going to forget his games. Ever.

As far back as the 80s, Douglas Adams was embracing the computer revolution. Since text adventures were a big seller in those days, Adams decided to hook up with Infocom, the people who invented Zork.

This worked out pretty well, and working with game designer Steve Meretzky, Adams put together a Hitchhiker's Guide game. It was pretty damn good too, especially since Adams knew fans would not want to be confronted solely by situations whose solutions would be obvious to those who read the books. Instead, he wrote new material and concocted new situations to challenge even seasoned text adventurers.The "Babel Fish Puzzle" became notorious at the time, requiring extensive experimentation, careful observation of the results, and reformulating the plan to make it work.

Adams took a second stab at interactive fiction with "Bureaucracy", an intentionally aggravating game about the aggravations of real life. The player is faced with insult and injury, has to answer questions and fill out forms, and almost never gets to have things come out "right". No matter what you write in the forms, the stupid game people fuck it up for you, and you inevitably get a result which makes your character miserable. Those who finished the game soon found that future visits to the DMV didn't seem very stressful anymore.

Finally, in 1998, Adams designed "Starship Titanic", a first-person adventure set on a crashed and malfunctioning spacecraft. Adams asked a couple of Monty Python cast members to lend their voices to the project, and asked Terry Jones to write a novelization of the story.

Robots always know the best solution.

Douglas Adams and the World of Science

Besides writing a lot of fiction books, promoting towel use, reminding people not to panic, and occasionally mentioning "42", Douglas Adams also used his rampant brainpower to help out the world of science.

"Last Chance to See" was his first nonfiction book, written with nature conservationist Mark Carwardine (who may have been providing him information on dolphins and mice). As the title suggests, it was about endangered species, and how animals tend to be interesting and funny. In it, the pair cover everything from Gorillas, to Fruit Bats, to Komodo Dragons. It was while researching the book that Adams first learned of the threat level to the White Rhinoceros. Adams decided to help saving White Rhinos, and in 1994, he tried to climb Mt Kilimanjaro in a Rhino Suit to raise awareness of the problem.

Adams found that Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist whom he had great respect for, was in turn a fan of Adam's writing. The two soon became friends, talking about all sorts of things that normal people didn't understand.

Adams and Dawkins had both noticed that despite other advances, humans remained somewhat humanocentric in their thinking. When grappling with how one might explain the pitfalls in this approach, they found a way to sum it up neatly:

". . . imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for."

This made scientists cover their faces and hide under chairs in an attempt to stop themselves from becoming more fully objective.

It may come as little surprise, but once real technology was clearly able to support the premise of a multi-contributor digital guide, Adams met the future head on (no one was hurt). In 1999 Adams got the opportunity to make his fiction a reality of sorts. With software engineers, he helped start H2G2, an online encyclopedia project intended to function like it's fictional counterpart, except for real people. It quickly grew, and now contains thousands of entries about a diverse base of topics, spanning different fields of knowledge and experience. In many ways it was the precursor to Wikipedia, though it tends to have more of a fun feeling than Wikipedia.

AltaVista decided to pay homage to Adams by naming their online translator "BabelFish". It spread in popularity, and has since become a fixture on the web, being used by thousands of people each day. When preparing for vacation, it's always good to find out how to swear in the native tongue, and this is an excellent place to do that. If BabelFish makes it so you can make remarks about your dong in Hong Kong, your nuts in Brazil, and your cock in Bangkok1, then you can thank Adams for the foreign police who chase you back to the airport2.

1 According to their tourism pamphlet, they actually have language teachers there who specialize in this. One place, called "Oral Experts" offers fair rates (though the wording in their ad is difficult to understand)

2 Adams explained that airports are intentionally unpleasant places, designed and built to crush the human spirit.

The (long awaited) Movie

It had been long speculated whether The Hitchhiker's Guide would get made into a movie, and whether this would be a good idea.

Douglas Adams was smart after all, and he knew very well that a great book could be transformed into an utterly bad movie. He wasn't going to let that happen.

When it was decided that some changes might be needed to rework the story into a 2 hour movie, Adams himself took charge of these changes. Instead of letting someone else pull new scenes and characters out of their ass, he deftly pulled them out of his own ass.

Like everything he did, the result was arguably more good than bad (it looked better than the BBC tv series, at least). Some fans disliked any changes at all, while other enjoyed the new material. Ultimately it seems like something got lost in the translation from page to screen. Our only real question was: Why screw with Zaphod's heads? Maybe Sam Rockwell wasn't the worst choice, but for god's sake, WHY THE PEZ HEAD???

Pictured from left to right: Marvin (the paranoid android) likely complaining to Zaphod Beeblebrox (extra pez head not shown), Ford Prefect (towel relaxed), and Arthur Dent (towel fully armed)

Death

Douglas Adams had intended to work on polishing the movie more, but other things got it the way.

In may 2001, Adams had a heart attack, and died. Fans consider this the worst thing he has ever done, and to this day, many refuse to speak to him.

Adams may be gone, but his legend lives on. His books continue to sell, and BBC adapted his remaining Hitchhiker's Guide books into 3 new radio series. Last, but not least; to appropriately pay tribute to Adams, his fans celebrate Towel Day every year on May 25th.

Fashion Disaster

Just wearing a towel would have probably been smarter.