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Monday, March 04, 2019

Review: Don't Panic - Douglas Adams & The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Don't Panic is Neil Gaiman's history of that wonderfully humorous book of science fiction, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It was written before he became famous as a comic book writer and later, novelist, but of course, after Hitchiker had become a cultural icon. I'd read it before, but had forgotten, which is OK, because the book had gotten updated in between, and of course still contains one of my favorite Douglas Adam's skit, the one about the Kamikaze Pilot:
COMM: What are you? PILOT: A kamikaze pilot sir. COMM: And what is your function as a kamikaze pilot? PILOT: To lay down my life for the Emperor sir! COMM: How many missions have you flown on? PILOT: Nineteen sir. COMM: Yes, I have the reports on your previous missions here. (FLIPS THROUGH EACH ONE.) Let’s see. Couldn’t find target, couldn’t find target, got lost, couldn’t find target, forgot to take headband, couldn’t find target, couldn’t find target, headband slipped over eyes, couldn’t find target, came back with headache… PILOT: Headband too tight sir. COMM: Vertigo, couldn’t find target, all the rest, couldn’t find target. Now I don’t think you’ve been looking very hard. PILOT: Yes I have sir, I’ve looked all over the place! COMM: You see, It’s not actually that difficult bearing in mind that we do have a highly sophisticated reconnaissance unit whose job it is to tell you where to find the targets. PILOT: Well, it’s not always accurate sir, sometimes one can search for hours and not see a single aircraft carrier. COMM: Well where exactly have you been looking, for these aircraft carriers? PILOT: Er, well sir… COMM: (FLIPPING THROUGH NOTES.)… I mean, I notice for instance that you seem to have more or less ignored the sea. I would have thought that the sea was quite a promising area. PILOT: Yes sir… COMM: And that the airspace directly above Tokyo was not. And another thing… PILOT: Yes sir? COMM: Skip the victory rolls. PILOT: Sir, you’re being unfair, I have flown over the sea lots of times. I actually attacked an aircraft carrier once. COMM: Ah yes, I have the details of your ‘attack’ here. Mission nineteen. Let’s see. Take off 0500 hours, proceeded to target area, nice start. Target spotted 0520 hours, good, climbed to a height of 6000ft, prepared for attack, went into a power dive, and successfully… landed on target. PILOT: I had to go wee wees sir. Caught short. But I took off again immediately sir. Good job too—one of our lads crashed straight into it. Poor devil didn’t stand a chance. (Kindle Loc 447)
The writing is done in a distinctively Neil Gaiman voice, and is actually quite good most of the time. There's a good timeline of which Hitchiker's variant was written when, as well as many other written works (e.g., Dirk Gently, The Meaning of Liff) and what it was like to actually work with Douglas Adams as well as interviews with producers, etc, of the TV show, which you probably wouldn't have seen unless you were a die-hard Hitchhiker's fan.

The book runs a little long and rambling, and is chocked full of footnotes. Having met Adams before he died, I would say that his assessment of what it's like being a comedy writer vs being a wit is the best. "A wit says something funny right away, while a comedy writer will say something hilarious a few days later."


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