The Wildly Improbably Ideas of Douglas Adams

Edited by Kevin Jon Davies



320pp/$36.95/October 2023


Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Douglas Adams burst into the world's consciousness with the radio series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when it first aired in 1978. The subsequent radio shows, books, television versions, and other derivative spinoffs of that series and his work with various Pythons, Doctor Who, the Dirk Gently books, The Meaning of Liff, Last Chance to See and more cemented his place in pop culture. Adams's famous ability to procrastinate meant many of his potential works were never released, although his posthumous The Salmon of Doubt collected various stories, essays, and unfinished works. Kevin Jon Davies, who created The Illustrated Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in 1994, has gone through the voluminous papers Adams left behind when he died in 2001 and presented them with some background material in 42: The Wildly Improbably Ideas of Douglas Adams.

The book is part biography, tracking Adams's life and writing projects from his time at Brentwood School when he was 12 through his death. Although Davies provides the background material needed to understand the book, the majority of the book reproduces essays, skits, letters, and other works by Adams, sometimes in his own handwriting, sometimes typed or printed. These works show Adams's growth as an author as well as the evolution (and consistency) of his concerns. Often seen as a humorous writer, Adams also had a lifelong love of technology as well as his eventual concern for endangered species. Reading through Adams's letters it becomes clear that although science fiction is not in the business of prognostication, Adams's accurately foresaw many of the technological achievements of the two decades since his death.

In addition to Adams's own words and the context provided by Davies, the book also includes letters from Adams's friends and colleagues, reflecting on their relationships, and offering them a chance to say goodbye to Adams in a public forum and share the person they knew and worked with, offering a further humanizing element to the various pieces and fragments included in the book. Furthermore, although The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy forms a core element of 42, the book makes it clear that Adams's work was much more than just that one property, even if it did provide him with the freedom and opportunity to explore his other interests.

In his afterword, editor Kevin Jon Davies comments, "[Adams's] handwriting and terrible typing feel like precious artefacts now..." In fact, his handwriting is one of the impediments to the book. The reproductions of his handwritten notes, especially when Adams was writing for himself rather than the public, are often difficult to decipher. Davies provides transcripts of some of the notes, but by no means all, and readers have to work their way through the squiggles and cross-outs. At the same time, those cross-outs provide insight into Adams's creative process.

If The Salmon of Doubt was a miscellany compiled for his most ardent fans, 42: The Wildly Improbably Ideas of Douglas Adams is an extreme offering to that same audience. Davies's selections are not meant to provide complete stories or writings by Adams, but rather to show what his process was and how concepts grew, including pointing out ideas that first appeared in his early school writings, skits for Footlights, or with the group Adams-Smith-Adams and later made their way into his more well-known works. The book also tracks the relationships Adams made through the years and demonstrates that the team that created the original radio series was not randomly put together, but was made up people Adams have worked with at various times, whether actors, writings, or technicians. 42 provides Adams fans with a more complete view of the author.

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