When you look up Douglas Adams in Wikiquote, it categorizes him under absurdists, atheists, comedic authors, English people, fantasy authors, satirists, science fiction authors, and 2001 deaths. And I agree that although all of those things fit, it does not completely describe him, or his effect on the legions of geeks, the British as a whole, and the concept of how absurd the universe really must be.
He grew up in an RSPCA animal shelter run by his grandparents after his parents divorced and his mother moved back in. A precocious and extraordinarily tall child, Adams was six feet tall by his twelfth birthday, eventually growing to six feet five inches. He was shy and self-conscious because of this, and he spent most of his time writing. Originally described as a “twitchy and somewhat strange child,” he ended up receiving the only student at the school ever given a perfect ten for Creative Writing at the exclusive school he had qualified for.
He said he discovered in a way he described as “epiphanous” the moment when he discovered that being funny could be a way in which intelligent people expressed themselves. This led him to begin publishing short works, and that led to his receiving a scholarship to Cambridge, where although he received his degree, although he said he only remembered finishing three essays in his entire career there. He wanted to be a writer-performer, or as he said “I wanted to be John Cleese, [but] it took me some time to realize that the job was taken.” While he was there he joined the Footlights, a college comedy club founded in the 1880’s that spawned much of British comedy as we know it. On the strength of that reference and the revues he participated in and wrote during his time there, he performed in, and wrote for the last series of Monty Python.
However, after the series ended, he ended up not being able to find work in the entertainment industry. To make ends meet he took a series of odd jobs, including as a hospital porter, barn builder, and chicken shed cleaner. He was employed as a bodyguard by a Qatari family, who had made their fortune in oil. It was at this point, when hitch-hiking through Europe with a stolen copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe, that he fell down drunk in a field in Innsbruck, Austria and began to stare at the stars. He looked up to the sky, and in his stupor, he said to himself that someone should write a Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
He first created the beginnings of the story as a radio show, diverging almost immediately from the agreed upon outline, and the rest, as they say, is history. Adams himself described the sudden success thusly: “It was like being helicoptered to the top of Mount Everest,” he said, “or having an orgasm without the foreplay.” He was never totally comfortable with the heights of fame, and he was constantly prone to fits of writer’s block and loss of self-confidence, including a year in which he went to go visit his mother for the day and ended up staying for a year in a depressed funk. But then again, his first success was writing a book about a compendium of the entirety of all knowledge in the universe, so there’s that…
He dealt with these periods by engaging in other pursuits, like playing onstage with his good friend David Gilmour at Pink Floyd concerts, starting ambitious technology projects, writing the occasional Doctor Who episode, and working on the protection of endangered animals. An epic procrastinator, a famous quote of his is “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise the make as they go by.” But he did eventually end up finishing five books of what he called “the increasingly inaptly named Hitch-Hiker’s Guide Trilogy.” He also said “my favorite piece of information is that Branwell Brontë, brother of Emily and Charlotte, died standing up leaning against a mantelpiece, in order to prove it could be done. This is not quite true, in fact. My absolute favorite piece of information is the fact that young sloths are so inept that they frequently grab their own arms and legs instead of tree limbs, and fall out of trees.,” but that is not immediately pertinent to his writing career. It does go to show that he was an extraordinarily funny person, and I have personally not read anything else by another writer that made me consistently laugh out loud while reading even when alone.
He also wrote the Dirk Gently series, (which has been made into perhaps the oddest good television show of the last many years) and even some non-fiction and games. He spent many years traveling and writing and filming documentaries on animals and their habitats. The one thing he said he was never able to do was get his work adapted properly for movies, a process he called “trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it.” He tried to get a movie made of the Hitch-Hiker’s books for twenty years, but then he died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 49, after collapsing at the gym. I am sure he would have had something to say in retrospect about going to the gym in general, knowing what he knows now, but even though they did publish some of his works posthumously and made a decent movie of H2G2, I would have loved to have read anything he would have written had he lived longer.
One of the most fitting tributes to Adams is the fact that there is a holiday known to all of his fans and celebrated since his death every year on May 25th called Towel Day, on which we celebrate the life of the man who first told us “Don’t Panic,” and that everything would eventually turn out okay if we only keep our towel with us.