Neil Gaiman, Don't Panic: Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Titan Books, 2003)

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the most remarkable, certainly the most successful book ever to come out of the great publishing companies of Ursa Minor. It is about the size of a paperback book, but looks more like a large pocket calculator, having upon its face over a hundred flat press-buttons and a screen about four inches square... It comes in a durable plastic cover, upon which the words DON'T PANIC are printed in large, friendly letters. This is not its story.

It is; however, the story of the radio series, the record, the computer games, the television series, the comic book, and the six-book trilogy by the same name.

It is also the story of a man. That is, a bipedal, carbon-based life form, descended from an ape. This man is, or was, six foot five inches tall, and in 1971, while lying in a field in Innsbruck, suddenly realized what it was that the world really needed.

This man was named Douglas Noel Adams.

Born in Cambridge, England, in 1952, right around the time another famous DNA was being brought to light in the same place, Adams proudest achievement as a youth was receiving a ten out of ten for a story from a particularly difficult master at school.

His ambition from a young age was to be a writer-performer (he was, as he said, tall enough for it), and after a series of disconcerting and random events centered around the Cambridge Footlights, and a series of peculiar jobs with which he could fill his bio-blurbs, he made some attempts at it in partnership with Monty Python member Graham Chapman. What they mostly accomplished was the drinking of a great deal of alcohol.

At twenty-four, leaving the writing partnership with Chapman, Adams was convinced he was a complete washout. Then former housemate John Lloyd introduced Adams to fellow radio producer Simon Brett. One or the other of them suggested working on a comedic science fiction story, and so things began. Adams wrote and Brett produced the pilot for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series. And the world would never be the same.

This is the funny, sometimes depressing story of a funny, sometimes depressed man. The original twenty-three chapters were written by a then-unknown Englishman named Neil Gaiman. Hints can be found therein of Gaiman's own style, but mostly he borrows from Adams'. This is perfectly understandable, and is even very pleasant, since he does it quite well. These chapters are full of anecdotes, interviews, script excerpts, quotes that were cut from various sources, and other gems. It's fun, friendly, and caring.

Chapters 24-26 were added by David K. Dickson in 1996. These chapters are not as entertaining nor as funny. The style seems lacking in contrast to Gaiman's portion of the book. Still, they cleanly lay out the information they have to present, and remain very interesting.

In 2002, after Douglas Adam's death (and when he died, he knew exactly where his towel was), MJ Simpson overhauled the text and added four more chapters. These chapters better echo Adams' style, and fit better with Gaiman's text, but are still distinct. The final chapter, "A Sort of Apres-Vie," is touching as well as funny.

If you've read Adams' work, and enjoyed it, this makes an excellent addition. It puts things in order, and in perspective, and explains why there are "so many versions of everything," It tells marvelous little anecdotes, like the time during a filming in his house when Douglas wandered into the kitchen, looking for something "like a pub, only smaller." (I must admit that there have been times when my refrigerator fit that description.) It contains wonderfully silly quotes, like, "There are no dolphins in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, but there are more dolphins than there are walruses or dinosaurs." (Oddly, this is absolutely true.) It is, generally, funny and fascinating.

If you've not read Adams' works, take a look at our reviews of some of them (an omnibus of his novels, Last Chance to See), and then go read the books. Neil Gaiman also narrates the superb Adams film tribute/biography, Life, the Universe, and Douglas Adams.

If you've read Adams, and not liked his work, then please don't tell me. It's like people who don't like chocolate: I know they're out there, and they have every right to not like it, but the concept completely baffles me.


[Rebecca Scott]

This review contains no ripon.*

*Not actually true.