Terry Jones‘ foreword to ‘The Restaurant at the End of the Universe’ (Hitchhiker’s Guide 2) hits the nail right on the head.
With underdeveloped characters and a plot that’s thin on the ground, we’re not exactly off to a flying start. If a compelling plot and convincing characters are the building blocks for a story, isn’t Adams a few sandwiches short of a writerly picnic?
So why do we still consider Douglas Adams a brilliant author?
If a writer is someone who shows us the same old stuff we look at every day in a fresh light, then Adams definitely qualifies.
He applies logic to things I (for one) never would have thought to question. As adults, we assume that somebody’s already given most things a lot of thought, so we don’t have to: the language we use, the thought habits we don’t question. We’ve reasoned ourselves out of using our own reason. Take, for example, the idea that we’re the most intelligent life form on earth. This is obvious, and self-evident, surely? Not to Adams.
‘[M]an had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much – the wheel, New York, wars and so on – whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man – for precisely the same reasons’.
Would the superior race apply itself to the creation (and destruction) of great things? Or would an even more superior race apply themselves to having a lark? Just like that, he’s turned one of our core beliefs on its head.
Don’t think that mundanities are safe from Adams’ logic, either. In the first book, Ford asks a Vogon guard,
‘So the hours are pretty good, then?’
To which we think, well that’s alright then. He’s got a pretty good deal. It’s one of the ways we justify our jobs, to ourselves and to each other.
‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘but now you come to mention it, most of the actual minutes are pretty lousy.’
In the most unassuming way, Adams is saying, maybe it’s the minutes which make up those hours that matter.
Douglas was ‘totally obsessed with the idea of ideas… He’s the only novelist I know who can make ideas a pageturner’ (Terry Jones again). Ideas are to literature what numbers are to maths; they are its currency. And Adams’ work has them by the bucketload.
P.S. Any author with a character named ‘Slartibartfast’ has my vote.