Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Don't Panic

Today my plan was to write something about counter measures for the anxiety that occurs when you discover that none of last year’s shorts will fit over your hips, but as soon as I typed the words Don't Panic, it sent me into the world of Douglas Adams and I haven’t quite escaped yet.

I became aware of The Hitchhiker’s Guide series in the mid- to late 80s, although I see that Adams actually wrote the first book in 1979. I’m not a Comic-Con level fangirl, but I admit I’ve read these books dozens of times. I lost the whole collection to an alternate universe in the mid-90s, but found this amazing replacement a few years ago:

All five novels in one big, biblical binding!  source
I can’t pinpoint exactly what makes these books so great, but it must have something to do with the perfect mixture of clever handling of science fiction with a range of humor veering from the highly intellectual to the utterly silly. Or maybe it’s better to quote a review I read which simply stated, “inspired insanity.”

Sadly for us, Mr. Adams departed this plane in 2001, but prior to that he wrote several other books and produced numerous other forms of entertainment. I don’t have a complete inventory, but I do know of his Dirk Gently series, of which there are unfortunately only two.
I like the Dirk Gently books for a couple of reasons. First, you can suspend all reliance on your understanding of the laws of physics. I don’t really understand the laws of physics to begin with, so I'm right at home. Second, the second book has one of the greatest book titles of all time: The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.
Finally, there is a very interesting volume which to my mind is a complete break from Adams’ previous work. The title is Last Chance to See.

It was published in the US in 1991 (UK date was probably earlier), and it chronicles his trip around the world to see six animals that were nearly extinct at the time. I went to a local bookstore to see Adams when he did his signing tour, and he read a bit from the book. I was impressed that he could write forceful, meaningful words on such painfully serious topics yet still inject humor and make the book very readable. (If you feel that you can handle a good news/bad news scenario without having it ruin your day, feel free to page down below my signoff to find out about the current status of the animals he visited.)

So getting back to the Hitchhiker’s Guide, I never cared much for the television or movie versions. The 1980s BBC television adaptation had its good moments but mostly it lost the balance between high and lowbrow humor that was so important in the books. I think I would have liked to hear the radio episodes, for comparison. The 2005 movie just seemed to be an opportunity for some Hitchhiker fans to get dressed up and replay their favorite scenes. Of course, that’s how I feel about most book-to-film conversions! I am a book person through and through.

Well, you may have discerned from all this that I recommend Douglas Adams’ books. If you don’t have them or haven’t read them, I say you should go out immediately and get the first copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy you can get your hands on. If you know and like the series, I recommend getting The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide because it has all five of the novels, plus an additional story, plus a nice introduction by the author that describes among other things what might happen if you get drunk and lie down in a field in Innsbruck in 1971. (I actually was in Innsbruck in 1971, but alas did not have the opportunity to get drunk or lie down in a field. If I had, I'd probably be a famous author now.) Also it is lovely to have a big hefty leather-bound book with 820 gilt-edged pages to luxuriate in.

What are you reading these days? If you were a fan of Douglas Adams during the Hitchhiker heyday I would love to hear about it!


Okay, here is the aforementioned good news-bad news. In putting this post together, I mistakenly thought it would be interesting to follow up on each of the species that Douglas Adams visited 20-plus years ago, and see how they fared. I should have assumed the news would be bad.
In fact, the results are mixed. I was pleasantly surprised to see that two of the animals, the Mountain Gorilla and the Rodrigues Fruit Bat, are improving due to intensive conservation efforts, and I suppose the Komodo Dragon is holding steady. (I don’t know how many of them there are supposed to be.) On the other hand, the Kakapo, which is a New Zealand parrot, distinctive for being very large, nocturnal, and flightless, is still struggling with a very small population. The Northern White Rhinoceros is extinct in the wild, and the few remaining individuals live in zoos.
Douglas Adams’ last visit was to the Baiji, a pale gray, long-snouted river dolphin also known as the “Goddess of the Yangtze.” Today the Baiji is assumed to be extinct. No confirmed sighting has been made since 2004, and even before that, population levels were too low to support breeding.

My unverified statistics on current populations (from various websites):
Mountain Gorilla                             780 and rising
Rodrigues fruit bat                          3000 and rising
Komodo Dragon                              4000 - 5000
Kakapo (Australian parrot)            127
Northern White rhinoceros           7 (seven!)
Baiji (Yangtze dolphin)                    Extinct
Now I am going to go and cry over all the lost dolphins, and try to plan my future posts more carefully.


  1. Hands up! I was there in the Hitch Hiker Heyday! The radio series was better than the film I think but of course it's a very long time since I listened to it. I wonder if the recordings are available from BBC.

    Sobering statistics.
    Mark Carwardine made a BBC tv series updated Last Chance to See recently with the fabulous Stephen Fry. Worth tracking down if you're able.

  2. I do love seeing what you are up too and I hope you accept One Lovely Blog Award.. I bring gifts, congrats...