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Review of The Salmon of Doubt by Douglas Adams

Incidentally, am I alone in finding the expression ‘it turns out’ to be incredibly useful? It allows you to make swift, succinct, and authoritative connections between otherwise randomly unconnected statments without the trouble of explaining what your source or authority actually is. It’s great. It’s hugely better than its predecessors ‘I read somewhere that …’ or the craven ‘they say that …’ because it suggests not only that whatever flimsy bit of urban mythology you are passing on is actually based on brand new, ground breaking research, but that it is research in which you yourself were intimately involved. But again, with no actual authority anywhere in sight. Anyway, where was I?

The Salmon of DoubtIt turns out that The Salmon of Doubt – the unfinished novel Douglas Adams was working on (up to a point, anyway) when he died on 11th May 2001 – is the lesser part of this volume. The first eleven chapters of this Dirk Gently story were collated from various drafts located on Adams’s various computers, by his editor, Peter Guzzardi. It further turns out, when you read the rest of the collected material here, that Adams had given up on the story as a third book in the Dirk Gently duology, and had realised that it would work much better as a sixth volume in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy.

It’s been a long time since I read the Dirk Gently books – less long since I read the Hitchhiker’s books – but these eleven chapters made me very happy and very sad. Happy because they were a pleasure to read – funny, intriguing and well-crafted. Sad because they will never be finished – there will never be another Dirk Gently, Hitchhiker’s or any other kind of Douglas Adams book.

After an initial chapter set in DaveLand, featuring the enigmatic Dave in a kind of post-apocalyptic far-future paradise, the story returns to the present and Dirk Gently discovers, almost by accident, he has been hired for a job. He doesn’t know anything about the who, how, why, when, where or what, but he does know one thing: detective mainly consists of following people. So he chooses someone and follows them. He’s a bit rusty at it, though, and he ends up overtaking them on the pavement, decides to turn around, bumps right into them and hops on a nearby bus in a panic.

He sat on the bus for a few seconds, completely stunned at his own ineptness. … Normally, if you were tailing someone, it was a problem if they unexpectedly jumped onto a bus, but it was almost more of a problem if you unexpectedly jumped on one yourself.

The Salmon of Doubt (the unfinished novel) takes up about 80 of the 300 pages of The Salmon of Doubt (the volume of miscellaneous writing). The rest of the book consists of articles, newspaper columns, interviews, a couple of short stories, and so on. These are divided – completely arbitrarily, as far as I could see – into three sections: ‘Life’, ‘The Universe’ and ‘Everything’. The whole is bracketed by, at the beginning, a prologue by Adams’s editor, Ed Victor, and an introduction by Stephen Fry; and at the end by an epilogue by Richard Dawkins.

A friend of mine at school once had some studio tickets to see David Frost’s show being recorded, but we ended up not going, I watched the show that night, and the Beatles were on it playing ‘Hey Jude.’ I was ill for about a year.

The subjects of the various pieces of writing range from Adams’s life to technology to why humans felt the need to invent God to the millennium to travel to miscellaneous musings to the earliest known published writing by Adams – a letter to The Eagle. One of the best – and longest – is a piece originally conceived as a comparative test drive of a submersible jet-ski thing and a manta ray. Only it doesn’t wuite work out like that – naturally. The two short stories are entertaining reads, but both conclude with rather weaker punchlines. The most interesting piece is a speech he gave to the scientists at Digital Biota 2, entitled ‘Is There an Artificial God?’

My complaints about the collection itself would be that the contents list isn’t good enough – it only lists the main sections of the book, not the individual pieces – and it’s too short: I wanted more.

People will then often say, ‘But surely it’s better to remain an Agnostic just in case?’ This, to me, suggests such a level of silliness and muddle that I usually edge out of the conversation rather than get sucked into it. (If it turns out that I’ve been wrong all along, and there is in fact a god, and it further turned out that this kind of legalistic, cross-your-finger-behind-your-back, Clintonian hair-splitting impressed him, then I think I would choose not to worship him anyway.)

The impression of Douglas Adams this book gives is that of a passionate, intelligent, slightly annoyingly middle class man who, for all his lampooning of the absurdities of life, would probably find the world a much duller place without them. It would be a bit mawkish to say that the world is a duller place without Adams – we still have all his work to enjoy over and over – but that he left his work unfinished is a melancholy thought indeed.

Where do you get the inspiration for your books?

I tell myself I can’t have another cup of coffee till I’ve thought of an idea.

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