DOUGLAS ADAMS (1952 - 2001)
"The Digital Planet":
Douglas Adams at the Muffathalle in Munich, November, 1998
This is not an obituary, therell be time enough for them. It
is not a tribute, not a considered assessment of a brilliant life,
not a eulogy. It is a keening lament, written too soon to be balanced,
too soon to be carefully thought through. Douglas, you cannot be dead.
A sunny Saturday morning in May, ten past seven, shuffle out of bed,
log in to e-mail as usual. The usual blue bold headings drop into
place, mostly junk, some expected, and my gaze absently follows them
down the page. The name Douglas Adams catches my eye and I smile.
That one, at least, will be good for a laugh. Then I do the classic
double-take, back up the screen. What did that heading actually
say? Douglas Adams died of a heart attack
a few hours ago. Then that other cliché, the words
swelling before my eyes. It must be part of the joke. It must be some
other Douglas Adams. This is too ridiculous to be true. I must still
be asleep. I open the message, from a well-known German software designer.
It is no joke, I am fully awake. And it is the right or rather
the wrong Douglas Adams. A sudden heart attack, in the gym
in Santa Barbara. Man, man, man, man oh man, the message
Man indeed, what a man. A giant of a man, surely nearer seven foot
than six, broad-shouldered, and he did not stoop like some very tall
men who feel uncomfortable with their height. But nor did he swagger
with the macho assertiveness that can be intimidating in a big man.
He neither apologised for his height, nor flaunted it. It was part
of the joke against himself.
of the great wits of our age, his sophisticated humour was founded
in a deep, amalgamated knowledge of literature and science, two of
my great loves. And he introduced me to my wife at his fortieth
birthday party. He was exactly her age, they had worked together on
Dr Who. Should I tell her now, or let her sleep a bit longer before
shattering her day? He initiated our togetherness and was a recurrently
important part of it. I must tell her now.
Douglas and I met because I sent him an unsolicited fan letter
I think it is the only time I have ever written one. I had adored
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Then I read Dirk
Gentlys Holistic Detective Agency. As soon as I finished
it I turned back to page one and read it straight through again
the only I time I have ever done that, and I wrote to tell
him so. He replied that he was a fan of my books, and he invited me
to his house in London. I have seldom met a more congenial spirit.
Obviously I knew he would be funny. What I didnt know was how
deeply read he was in science. I should have guessed, for you cant
understand many of the jokes in Hitchhiker if you dont
know a lot of advanced science. And in modern electronic technology
he was a real expert. We talked science a lot, in private, and even
in public at literary festivals and on the wireless or television.
And he became my guru on all technical problems. Rather than struggle
with some ill-written and incomprehensible manual in Pacific Rim English,
I would fire off an e-mail to Douglas. He would reply, often within
minutes, whether in London or Santa Barbara, or some hotel room anywhere
in the world. Unlike most staffers of professional help lines, Douglas
understood exactly my problem, knew exactly why it was
troubling me, and always had the solution ready, lucidly and amusingly
explained. Our frequent e-mail exchanges brimmed with literary and
scientific jokes and affectionately sardonic little asides. His technophilia
shone through, but so did his rich sense of the absurd. The whole
world was one big Monty Python sketch, and the follies of humanity
are as comic in the worlds silicon valleys as anywhere else.
He laughed at himself with equal good humour. At, for example, his
epic bouts of writers block (I love deadlines. I love
the whooshing noise they make as they go by) when, according
to legend, his publisher and book agent would literally lock him in
a hotel room, with no telephone, and nothing to do but write, releasing
him only for supervised walks. If his enthusiasm ran away with him
and he advanced a biological theory too eccentric for my professional
scepticism to let pass, his mien at my dismissal of it would always
be more humorously self-mocking than genuinely crestfallen. And he
would have another go.
He laughed at his own jokes, which good comedians are supposed not
to, but he did it with such charm that the jokes became even funnier.
He was gently able to poke fun without wounding, and it would be aimed
not at individuals but at their absurd ideas. To illustrate the vain
conceit that the universe must be somehow pre-ordained for us, because
we are so well-suited to live in it, he mimed a wonderfully funny
imitation of a puddle of water, fitting itself snugly into a depression
in the ground, the depression uncannily being exactly the same
shape as the puddle. Or theres this parable, which he told
with huge enjoyment, whose moral leaps out with no further explanation.
A man didnt understand how televisions work, and was convinced
that there must be lots of little men inside the box. manipulating
images at high speed. An engineer explained to him about high frequency
modulations of the electromagnetic spectrum, about transmitters and
receivers, about amplifiers and cathode ray tubes, about scan lines
moving across and down a phosphorescent screen. The man listened to
the engineer with careful attention, nodding his head at every step
of the argument. At the end he pronounced himself satisfied. He really
did now understand how televisions work. But I expect there
are just a few little men in there, arent there?
Science has lost a friend, literature has lost a luminary, the mountain
gorilla and the black rhino have lost a gallant defender (he once
climbed Kilimanjaro in a rhino suit to raise money to fight the cretinous
trade in rhino horn), Apple Computer has lost its most eloquent apologist.
And I have lost an irreplaceable intellectual companion and one of
the kindest and funniest men I ever met. I officially received a happy
piece of news yesterday, which would have delighted him. I wasnt
allowed to tell anyone during the weeks I have secretly known about
it, and now that I am allowed to it is too late.
sun is shining, life must go on, seize the day and all those clichés.
We shall plant a tree this very day: a Douglas Fir, tall, upright,
evergreen. It is the wrong time of year, but well give it our
best shot. Off to the arboretum.
tree is planted, and this article completed, all within 24 hours of
his death. Was it cathartic? No, but it was worth a try.
was announced today that RICHARD
DAWKINS has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and the Charles Simonyi Professor
For The Understanding Of Science at Oxford University; Fellow of New
College; author of The Selfish Gene,The Extended Phenotype,The
Blind Watchmaker, River Out Of Eden (Science Masters Series),
Climbing Mount Improbable, and Unweaving The Rainbow.
appearing in The
Guardian and Frankfurter