by Ayo Khensu-Ra
May 2nd has long held a sort of special aura for me. Improbably I reckoned some years ago that this was the date I picked up a certain book in the Hilo Public Library. While I wouldn’t say that book changed my life, it’s still one of my favorites — a strange mixture of science fiction, humor and gloom.
Anyone familiar with the series of which the book is a part will probably have guessed by now that I’m referring to the late Douglas Adams’ Mostly Harmless which was (amazingly) published some twenty years ago. I say amazingly because I was in middle school around that time an awkward, uncertain kid (it might be argued that I’m an awkward uncertain adult but that’s another story.)
The book is Adams’ final chapter in the series that began with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy , a novel that was based on Adams’ own BBC radio program of the same name. Three books sit between the first and Mostly Harmless. They all center around the misadventures of Arthur Dent a fairly ordinary Englishman who just happens to be the last male survivor of the destruction of the Earth. I’ve enjoyed all the Hitchhiker’s books quite a lot but Mostly Harmless was the first I read and so is extra significant but something else I think draws me to that book in particular.
There’s a certain brilliance in Adams’ style. In each of his books he referenced and played with science fiction conventions bringing a kind of order through craziness. The books are very funny. Adams’ narrative voice is often calm, almost dry while discussing something completely absurd. But beyond that, Mostly Harmless has a rather intricate, intriguing plot. There are a number of threads to the story and there is a certain bigness to it that one might not expect from humorous science fiction novel. The elements of the story tie together wonderfully, everything falling right into place for the conclusion. It must also be said that the conclusion is far from a happy one which is something else that intrigues me about the novel–its mixture of comic and tragic. That mixture is something I later came to appreciate in the work of writer and director Joss Whedon (Whedon is probably best known as the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the much-praised and oft-analyzed TV series; his take on Marvel’s The Avengers just arrived in theaters). While Whedon’s work is certainly more serious in tone, humor is one of his trademarks. I don’t want to get too carried away with analysis or overstate what Adams was trying to do but I do think Mostly Harmless and the other Hitchhikers’ books are more than mere light entertainment. Mostly Harmless is wildly entertaining and it is extremely well-written, smart, witty and yes, a little grim. But if the arts are always on some level an attempt to make sense of life, the universe and everything then the comic and the tragic must inevitably meet.
Douglas Adams died in May of 2001, he was 49. I’ve often wondered what he would’ve written had he lived longer. He indicated that he might write another Hitchhikers’ book, that perhaps he might’ve liked to end the series on a happier note. A sequel to Mostly Harmless has been penned by Eoin Colfer. I haven’t read that book yet and while I probably will at some point, I can’t imagine it will be quite the same as reading Adams. At any rate, when May 2nd rolls around, I’m still reminded of picking up that book that evening in Hilo 20 years ago, the days and months afterward as I read through the series.