DeFlip Side #13: A Tribute to Douglas Adams


Welcome everybody. This is DeFlip Side.

Or is it? How can you tell whether or not this is really me? For all you know, I stepped out in front of a bus a week ago Thursday and became a smear on the pavement. Howard, in his frantic rush to get a show together, may very well have dug into his DeFlip Side archives, culled a clip here, a word there, and voila! Here I am, a by-product of cunning editing.

Of course that may sound a bit far-fetched—especially the part about anyone actually keeping an archive of this mindless palaver. But posthumous exploitation is nothing new in the entertainment media. Think of what happened after Elvis Presley died, and reporters asked his manager, Col. Tom Parker, what his future plans were now that the King was dead. Parker’s response:

“I plan to keep right on promoting him.”

Parker had figured out that anyone, living or dead, could remain a hot commodity if they had become popular enough. He robbed Elvis throughout his career; he saw no reason why a pesky thing like death should get in the way of continued profits. This M.O. has become a huge business these days. We’ve tried to legitimize it by calling it “nostalgia.” But it’s really just raping the dead. There are people out there who would auction off Marilyn Monroe’s toenail clippings to turn a quick buck. Worse yet, there are other people out there who would drop insane wads of cash to be the highest bidder.

But the worst of these exploiters have to be the ones who outright steal the great works of past masters, use them to build up their own worthless careers, and then label them tributes. You know who you are, Natalie Cole! You couldn’t get your own thing going, so you decided to dig up daddy Nat and perform duets? All you did was caterwaul through your father’s masterpieces, you no-talent crack whore!

The Science Fiction genre has its own examples of this parasitic practice. Last time I checked, Scientology founder and author L. Ron Hubbard had ceased breathing in 1986. Same thing with author V.C. Andrews, of Flowers in the Attic fame. Yet both still manage to turn out books on a regular basis. It’s a pretty neat trick. Maybe our resident speaker-to-the-dead Debra can ask them how they do it.

Surely, there are people out there who wish only to venerate the work of their favorite artist. So where do we draw the line? Well, I say we should draw it damn well short of co-opting a dead author’s name and creating a franchise out of it.

It gets murkier, I think, when it comes to unfinished works. When Stanley Kubrick died before completing A.I., Artificial Intelligence, I was surprised to see Steven Spielberg take the reigns, but mainly because they have such different directing styles. I don’t think you can call it posthumous plunder, since Spielberg is already established and didn’t really gain anything from it. Anyway, moviemaking is such a collaborative process that switching a director doesn’t necessarily spell corruption of the creative vision.

It’s a different story when it comes to books. Every now and then you read about the discovery of some long lost, partial manuscript by a famous author, which some publisher is rushing into print. I have trouble with this practice. While writers are their own worst critics, they don’t usually leave great gems hidden away. If they write something good, they know it, and they use it. If something is squirreled away in a bottom drawer, it’s probably there for a good reason.

Which is why I had such mixed feelings when I heard of the release of a new Douglas Adams book a full year after his death. Titled The Salmon of Doubt, the book would include, among other things, an unpublished chunk of a new Dirk Gently novel Adams had been working on before he died. The Salmon of Doubt was one of three working titles for the unfinished book.

I think I need to pause here and put my admiration for Adams into perspective. On my list of the top Science Fiction authors of all time, you don’t get much higher than Douglas Adams. He had the same influence on me as he claims Monty Python had on him. To quote the master himself:

“The thing about Python that hit me like a thunderbolt was that comedy was a medium in which extremely intelligent people could express things that simply couldn’t be expressed any other way. It was a thrilling beacon of light.”

That was just Howard, of course, not Douglas from beyond the grave. But if you change Python in that statement to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, then you begin to get an idea of how Douglas Adams transformed the way I look at Science Fiction.

News of Adams’ unexpected death last year hit me like a blow. To never again read anything new by him was unthinkable. So I was thrilled to see a new book, even a posthumous collection of potentially less-than-stellar work, despite my dislike for such things.

Truth be told, I wasn’t all that happy with Adams’ final Hitchhiker’s novel, Mostly Harmless. And while I enjoyed the Dirk Gently books, it seemed as if he was just beginning to find the stride of the character by the end of the second Gently installment, The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul.

Well, I just finished reading The Salmon of Doubt and it was a lot worse than I expected. I don’t mean the collected articles, speeches, interviews and letters. They offered a great insight into what influenced Adams and helped me to understand how he processed ideas for his writing. They were fine.

The problem was with the collection’s centerpiece, that 80-page chunk of Adams’ unfinished Dirk Gently novel. It was good. It was very good. It was frustratingly good, a prime example of Adams’ unique comic talent and his off-kilter brilliance. He seemed to finally have gotten into a comfortable groove with Gently, and it felt like he was heading somewhere great. And I’ll never get to finish it. Ever.

So pick up The Salmon of Doubt at your own risk. As far as posthumous tributes go, it was obviously put together by people who cared a great deal for Adams, and his legacy. Of course there is no greater legacy than his body of work.

And for a writer like me, it’s reassuring to know that that body of work was produced by someone with the same fears and doubts all writers experience. As he said:

“People assume you sit in a room, looking pensive and writing great thoughts. But you mostly sit in a room looking panic-stricken and hoping they haven’t put a guard on the door yet.”

But as to why he kept doing it, he said:

“I think I’m just better off sitting down and putting a hundred thousand words in a cunning order.”

I’m glad you did, Douglas. I’ll never be able to express just how much.

Now, moving from death to life, it’s my great pleasure to congratulate my sister Denise and her husband Glenn on the birth of their son, Matthew Glenn Grillo, born on July 11. Welcome to the world kiddo! I can’t wait to buy you your first book.