by Douglas Adams

Crown Harmony


330pp/$24.00/May 2002

The Salmon of Doubt

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Douglas Adams first promised the novel The Salmon of Doubt more than a decade ago.  His well-known tendency for procrastination, however, means that at the time of his death in May, 2001, the novel was not only not finished, but it was barely begun.  In fact, originally announced as a novel in the Dirk Gently series, Adams was on record as saying that he was strongly considering turning the book into a sixth Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novel.  In any event, following his death, his widow and editor extracted the portion of the novel he had already written from his hard drive and determined it could be published along with numerous essays and the few short stories in Adams’s oeuvre.

The result of this hard-drive grave robbery is a collection of autobiographical essays, interviews, comments about the world in general, the stories “The Private Life of Genghis Khan” and “Young Zaphod Plays it Safe” and eleven chapters of a Dirk Gently novel, the later being the opening of a detective novel with no end.  The collection, which uses the title of the unfinished Dirk Gently novel, is somewhat misleadingly subtitled “Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time.”

The excerpts deal with a variety of Adams’s favorite subjects. . . computers (especially Macs), atheism, and the necessity to preserve endangered species.  He tackles all of these issues, and more, with a wry sense of humor which garners the reader’s attention and sympathy even when the reader disagrees with Adams’s position on a given issue. 

Central to this portion of the book is a lengthy discussion of an artificial deity in which Adams expounds on his own atheistic (not agnostic) beliefs about the universe.  The essay is only slightly adversarial in tone, focusing more on postulating a world with no creator (imminent or otherwise) and explaining why Adams believes civilization should be past the need to believe in a deity.

The final section of the book includes the short story “The Private Life of Genghis Khan,” which looks at the personal life of the conqueror.  The reader quickly understands Adams's point, but Adams maintains the joke, apparently unable to find a successful way of ending the story.  The eventual conclusion seems out of place, more of an in-joke to reward readers than a punchline to the story’s set up.  The second short story is a look at the early life of Zaphod Beeblebrox and is probably the most widely known work published within this volume.  A short bit Adams wrote about a kamikaze pilot briefing would have fit perfectly in this area, but the editors have not deigned to include it.

The actual novel in question begins, more or less, with Dirk Gently discovering that someone has been making large deposits into his bank account for no apparent reason.  Using his theory of the “fundamental connectedness of all things,” he begins to follow a random stranger and solving another case.  Despite what his own opinion may have been, Adams has already begun to construct a complex and apparently unrelated plot which is reminiscent of the previous Dirk Gently novels.  Unfortunately, the fragment which has been written leaves the reader yearning to find out what Adams had in mind, which is not revealed in any real detail by the brief fax following the novel.  It would have be interesting if Adams’s widow or editors, to whom he surely mentioned some of his ideas, could have made note of them.

While the novel fragment which concludes The Salmon of Doubt leaves the reader wanting more, on the whole, this Douglas Adams miscellany is both entertaining and insightful.  It drives home what the world has lost both by Adams’s death and his relatively small published body of work.  His editors have managed to give voice not only to his fiction, but also, and more importantly, to the environmental concerns first voiced in the book Last Chance to See.

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