When I was twelve, I bought a text-adventure game called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for my Amiga 500 computer. The box had ‘Don’t Panic!’ written in large, friendly letters on the front and showed a green alien sticking its tongue out. Inside was a floppy disk, planning permission for a hyperspace bypass that would require the demolition of the Earth, some pocket fluff, and Joo-Janta 500 Super-Chromatic Peril-Sensitive Sunglasses (which become opaque when the wearer gets scared). The game was written by Douglas Adams. I decided to buy the BBC Radio series on which the game was based. By the time I was fourteen, I could recite – no joke – the entire six hours of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Both radio series, including the opening and closing credits. My sound effects were particularly good.
The author of Hitchhiker is, of course, Douglas Adams. Adams died suddenly on May 11th 2001. Within days his agent got hold of his hard drive, had someone scan it for text documents, burn them to a CD, and set this posthumous publication in motion: The Salmon of Doubt.
This book has the potential to be excruciating. It seems unfair on Adams because many of the fiction vignettes, non-fiction pieces, emails, and transcribed speeches were never intended for publication. But this misses the point. We know Adams would not have published them; we don’t expect another Hitchhiker’s Guide (though a marketing wag has written ‘Hitchhiking the Galaxy one Last Time’ on the cover where ‘Douglas is dead: Don’t Panic’ would be more appropriate). The result is a collection of insights into a remarkable writer, one who suffered from writer’s block, did not suffer from deadlines (‘The thing I most love about deadlines is the whooshing sound they make as they go past’), and had a passionate interest in saving endangered species.
The book’s title is taken from Adams’s unfinished Dirk Gently detective novel. Dirk Gently appears in the post-Hitchhiker works Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul. Gently is a typical Adams character: based on someone Adams knew, but when Gently talks, Adams speaks. The unfinished Gently novel is good, though it does contain a number of ‘placeholders’ to which Adams was no doubt intending to return. Its characters are literally undernourished but Gently is on form. However, reading this unfinished novel is either an exercise is breaking your heart (if you are a fan) or an unwanted look into the writer’s world where the effortlessness of the final manuscript is a lie based upon plot dead-ends, jokes that don’t work, and a rhinoceros called Desmond.
Inside this book you will also find a letter from a twelve-year-old Adams to the editors of The Eagle magazine, an article about testing an artificial manta-ray off Australia, an email to the American producer of the thus-far unproduced Hitchhiker film, an obituary by Adams’s friend, Richard Dawkins, several interviews, no planning permission for the destruction of the Earth, and no peril-sensitive sunglasses of any description. Reading this book is misery. With each eloquently-phrased and humorous comment, one begins to panic; who is there to take the piss out of life now that Douglas is dead? It is possible that other writers will continue to write in the same manner, but, for me, there remains a doubt; just a salmon of it.