WordsDay: Don’t panic, it’s 42…uh, what was the question…?

Douglas Adams (courtesy Wikimedia)

I am no fan of science fiction. When I was in college I had a bandmate who loved the stuff – he pushed Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and Herbert’s Dune on me. I waded though all this stuff diligently (one of my neuroses is that once I begin a book I have to finish it – as best I remember, the only two times I have consciously decided not to do so were with Dickens’ Bleak House– which I completed the second time I took it on – and John Grisham’s The Firm – which I will never complete, because I just don’t like the guy’s writing). I have read William Gibson’s Neuromancer, but I’ve not felt compelled to read anything else by him. Due diligence performed, thank you and good night.

My taste when I’ve read sci-fi voluntarily (a short period in junior high was the peak) has tended towards classic stuff like Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, creaky old literati compared to the bloated, techno-geek omni-volumes of more recent vintage. The two writers I mention when people begin talking about their favorite sci-fi authors, Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, get me, usually, “those guys aren’t real sci-fi writers” looks. I once read a Donald Wandrei story (part of an anthology my mom had and gave me when I was a kid edited by Dashiell Hammett) and at least one book by Phillip K. Dick (you can guess which one based on the brilliant Ridley Scott film created from it). I met the science fiction author Samuel R. Delany when I was in grad school – but when I tried to read his work I found it asininedly over-complex for my taste. I know little or nothing of some of the current lions of the genre such as Neal Stephenson. I’ve put in my time wading through Pynchon and De Lillo – I don’t owe the PostModerns and their gimmicks another moment of my time.

In fact, just to tick off lots of people I know (and some I don’t), I’ll apply that critique of S.R. Delany’s work to pretty much all the science fiction I’ve mentioned above except for those authors I have specifically stated I admire: it’s all too asininedly complex for my taste. Some of it reads (to me) like tech manuals. Where’s the fun in that?

So there’s some guilt in what I’ll be saying next. Bear with me. This is about the next book on my 2013 reading list, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A science fiction work. A work I took on despite my lack of affection for the genre because of – well, because of multiple layers of guilt.

First level of guilt: my sons Josh and Trevor gave me an omnibus edition of the Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide series for my birthday some years ago. How many, you ask? Enough many that Adams was still living when I received the gift. Both boys raved about the books; they’d read the entire series and told me I’d love them despite my protestations of indifference, even dislike, of sci-fi. My son Josh, a writer himself, said, “Dad, you’ll love these books. Douglas Adams’ books are ‘Monty Python does science fiction.’”  (As it turns out, Adams co-wrote a skit for Monty Python and appeared in it, too.)

I smiled and nodded. And a few weeks after my birthday dutifully started the book. Maybe 10-15 pages in, I laid it aside, fully intending to continue. I made no conscious decision not to finish the book as I did with those mentioned above. I just didn’t get back to it. I somehow wandered off to other books.

Probably 15 years worth of books. My bad. There’s the second level of guilt.

So as I was making up the 2013 reading list, that big old volume of Hitchhiker books peered out at me from the bookcase and, in a moment of contrition, I added it to the list.

And now I’ve read it. And I loved it.

The major characters – Arthur Dent, the accidental galactic hitchhiker, Ford Prefect, his friend who turns out to be an alien from a planet near Betelgeuse and who saves Arthur from destruction, Zaphod Beeblebrox, playboy-outaw (and galaxy president), his girlfriend (stolen from Arthur) Trillian – are characters from Monty Python skits. And several of the scenes in the novel – the Vogon poetry fest, the argument over the answer to the question “What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?” (which features a pair of philosophers, Majikthise and Vroomfondel, who do a dead-on riff on Python’s Spanish Inquisition bit), and the meeting with the mice who are the super-intelligent masters of the galaxy (and whose sense of ethics rivals that of Goldman Sachs management) – are more like Python skits than the stuff of sci-fi novels.  And that’s a very good thing for this reader.

But it’s this kind of stuff that makes the novel laugh out loud funny – and the best science fiction I’ve ever read. From the introduction to The Hitchhiker’s Guide (the fake book that gives its name to the real one): “Space…is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space….”

Kurt Vonnegut once described his writing process as writing a joke, then rewriting and rewriting it until he’d got it just right – then writing another joke…and another…and eventually getting a book out of the procedure.

Vonnegut was half-kidding in his explanation of his process, of course. But one gets the sense while reading his work that Douglas Adams saw Vonnegut’s explanation and decided to apply it as diligently as possible to his own writing process – writing joke after joke after joke until he had a book.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is just such a book. A book funny enough to kill you faster than the poetry of Grunthos the Flatulent.

Well, all this writing  has made me hungry. I’ll see you at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

9 replies »

  1. I’m glad you liked Adams, who’s worthy of every nice thing you say about him. And yes, Vonnegut was god. More importantly, he was an early foreshadower of what SF has become. That is, speculative fiction. Gibson figured out in the ’80s that it was getting damned hard to write SCIENCE fiction because the pace of tech advance was accelerating. You’d have a great futuristic idea and by the time you finished the manuscript it would be on the shelves at Target. So he jumped off the SF train and began doing spec fic. His latest work isn’t even remotely SF, but is instead very much wound around forward-looking contemporary material culture.

    A bit ironic, in a way, given the verve with which he attacked the very kind of overly technical hard SF wanking that puts you off. This is what “The Gernsback Continuum,” one of his earliest stories, was all about. It was a manifesto that made clear how the future of SF couldn’t be about scientific plausibility – it had to emerge from cultural plausibility. Huge shift.

    These days, there’s still some space cowboys stuff out there. But the only seriously sciency SF stuff of note comes from writers who are trying to engage quantum theory. Which is hellishly hard, because a) it’s so damned difficult to understand, b) it’s so damned counterintuitive even if you do understand it, and c) the deeper you delve into hard science like this, the more impossible it becomes to write a good story that more than six people are able (or willing) to follow. Brian may wade in a tribute to Dan Simmons, who’s interesting in a way, but the only person I have seen really make much of a quantum-based story is Stephenson, and he succeeds because he’s smart enough not to let the arcana get in the way of the story.

    As for your distaste for SF. First off, I can’t tell you to like what you’ve tried and just don’t like. I get it. I would say that Stephenson is worth a read. You, with your deep literary background, would likely appreciate the Baroque Trilogy. It isn’t SF, it’s spec fic, and in many respects it might remind you of the writers you like. Additionally, you’d appreciate how insanely intelligent and well-researched it is. Finally, it’s writerly as hell, and he manages to do it in a way that rewards the reader. He might lead you down an alley to show you that he’s in charge, by gods, but at the end of the alley is something that will have you laughing your ass off.

    • I know, I know – I am sooo the curmudgeon about these matters. But you know, I might have liked sci-fi better had I not read John Barth so young. Yes, I know Barth isn’t sci-fi, but he’s…well, he’s…just the sort of insupportable blather that too much sci-fi is to me. Somehow, when someone says to me “You should read …” I think about Barth. And I die a little inside.

      I debated a while back and decided to read Douglas Coupland rather than Stephenson. That may have been an error in judgment, but I really wanted to understand the Xer mentality more clearly and Coupland explains it better than Stephenson ever would, I suspect.

      I will give Stephenson a try. In fact, he’s on my list for 2014 – which will be a list of “writers everyone tells me I should like but I just don’t give a damn about even though I’ve never read their work” list.

      Gotta keep moving or you die, as the Great Whites tell me….

      • Let’s talk before you decide which NS to read. His library covers some stylistic and thematic ground and there are things you almost certainly wouldn’t like.

  2. >>I debated a while back and decided to read Douglas Coupland rather than Stephenson. That may have been an error in judgment…

    Understatement of the year!

    I will resist the urge to steer you toward some more recent sf than Dune and Stranger In A Strange Land that might change your mind about what is currently being done in the field. However, I will suggest a couple of books gor your to-read list, since you liked HHG so much (and didn’t we all):

    To Say Nothing of the Dog – Connie Willis
    Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal – Christopher Moore
    A Confederacy of Dunces (not sf, but a must-read for the humor/pathos) – John Kennedy Toole

    and, I can never recommend it too much or too often:

    Bridge of Birds – Barry Hughart

    • LAMB is, in fact, awesome, and it may be the funniest book I’ve ever read. Given Jim’s literary bent, he might also appreciate FOOL, a remarkably keen retelling of LEAR (this time as a comedy, and with the fool as the narrative center of things). And for that matter, he might well enjoy SACRE BLEU, given how much he knows about Impressionism.

      Not sure if he’d like Willis, although many others might.

        • Thanks both to Sam and rushmc for the recommendations. BTW, rushmc, I’ve read Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces. As Sam will attest, I’ve read lots of stuff. 🙂 Again, the sort of phantasmagorical doesn’t move me so much – I lived through the sixties, so maybe it brings back certain creepy feelings from that decade.

          Interesting note for you both – just on a whim last night I Googled (what else?) “best sci-fi books.” Got several lists – some from book stores, one from NPR, some from book bloggers, etc.

          Checked 3 – from the book store’s “50 best” I’d read – 27-28? From the NPR “top 100 sci-fi/fantasy” list I’d read about 35. From a popular sci-fi book blogger’s “15 classics” I’d read 10, I think.

          So, to sum – I’ve read plenty of both sci-fi and fantasy. So my taste (or lack thereof) for the genre isn’t based on lack of exposure.

          As I said to Sam, I’ll be adding a few sci-fi/spec fic/fantasy works to my 2014 reading list. These suggestions are great and I appreciate very much your kindness in suggesting them.

          Just don;t expect me to fall in love. 🙂

  3. I wonder which is more important, that you love it or that you keep reading it? LOL

    I’m a big believer in trying to read the best stuff, regardless of what category or genre others may try to label it with (as can be seen here: I can certainly understand a preference against certain kinds of books–I have them myself–it just seems to me that sf is too broad and inclusive a category to dismiss that way out of hand.