Don’t Panic by Neil Gaiman, David K. Dickson and MJ Simpson: An Indispensable Guide to Douglas Adams and his Work

I’d intended to get this up and ready for Towel Day last week — but, obviously, I failed. Schemes once again, Gang aft a-gley. It’s pretty fitting, really that this is late.

Don't PanicDon’t Panic: Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Third Edition)

by Neil Gaiman; Additional Material by David K. Dickson & MJ Simpson
Series: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy (related)

Hardcover, 207 pg.
Titan Books, 2003
Read: May 22 – 23, 2019

          
The idea in question bubbled into Douglas Adams’s mind quite spontaneously, in a field in Innsbruck. He later denied any personal memory of it having happened. But it’s the story he told, and, if there can be such a thing, it’s the beginning. If you have to take a flag reading THE STORY STARTS HERE and stick it into the story, then there is no other place to put it.

It was 1971, and the eighteen year-old Douglas Adams was hitch-hiking his way across Europe with a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europethat he had stolen (he hadn’t bothered ‘borrowing’ a copy of Europe on $5 a Day, he didn’t have that kind of money).

He was drunk. He was poverty-stricken. He was too poor to afford a room at a youth hostel (the entire story is told at length in his introduction to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Trilogy in Four Parts in England, and The Hitchhiker’s Trilogy in the US) and he wound up, at the end of a harrowing day, flat on his back in a field in Innsbruck, staring up at the stars. “Somebody,” he thought, “somebody really ought to write a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

He forgot about the idea shortly thereafter.

Five years later, while he was struggling to think of a legitimate reason for an alien to visit Earth, the phrase returned to him. The rest is history, and will be told in this book.

I distinctly remember purchasing the first edition of Don’t Panic from BookPeople of Moscow in the fall of 1991 — I remember being blown away by the idea that someone would write a book about Douglas Adams’ work. I had no idea who this Neil Gaiman fellow was, but I enjoyed his writing and loved the book he wrote — and read it several times. It was a long time (over 2 decades) before I thought of him as anything but “that guy who wrote the Hitchhiker’s book.” The Hitchhiker’s Trilogy had been a favorite of mine for years by that point, and getting to look behind the scenes of it was like catnip.

This is the third edition, and as is noted by Gaiman in the Forward, it “has been updated and expanded twice.” The completist in me would like to find a second edition to read the original 3 chapters added by David K. Dickson in 1993, but the important change was in 2002, when “MJ Simpson wrote chapters 27-30, and overhauled the entire text.” If you ask me, Gaiman’s name should be in the smaller print and Simpson’s should be the tall letters on the cover — but no publisher is that stupid, if you get the chance to claim that Neil Gaiman wrote a book, you run with it. Overhauled is a kind way of putting it — there’s little of the original book that I recognize (I’m going by memory only, not a side by side comparison). This is not a complaint, because Simpson’s version of the book is just as good as the original, it’s just not the original.

This is a little more than the story of The Hitchhiker’s Trilogy, but it’s certainly not a biography of Adams — maybe you could call it a professional biography. Or a biography of Adams the creator, which only touches upon the rest of his life as needed. Yes there are brief looks at his childhood, schooling, etc. But it primarily focuses on his writing, acting, producing and whatnot as the things that led to that revolutionary BBC Radio series and what happened afterward. Maybe you could think of it as the story of a man’s lifelong battle to meet a deadline and the lengths those around him would go to help him not miss it too much.

Once we get to the Radio series, it follows the The Hitchhiker’s Trilogy through each incarnation and expansion — talking about the problems getting it produced (in whatever medium we’re talking about — books, TV show, movie, stage show) and the content. Then the book discusses other Adams projects — Dirk Gently books, The Last Chance to See, his computer work, and other things like that.

It’s told with a lot of cheek, humor, and snark — some of the best footnotes and appendices ever. It’s not the work of a slavish fanboy (or team of them) — there are critical moments talking about problems with some of the books (some of the critiques are valid, others might be valid, but I demur). But it’s never not told with affection for the man or his work.

Don’t Panic is a must for die-hard fans — and can be read for a lot of pleasure by casual fans of the author or his work. I can almost promise that whatever your level of devotion to or appreciation of Adams/his work, it’ll increase after reading this. Any edition of this book should do — but this third edition is an achievement all to itself. Imagine someone being able to say, “I improved on Gaiman’s final draft.”

I loved it, I will return to this to read as well as to consult for future things I write about Adams, and recommend it without hesitation.

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5 Stars

Humor Reading Challenge 2019

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

It’s been months since I read this, and I haven’t written the review yet, because I wanted it to be the best thing on this blog because this book deserves it. But that’s just not going to happen, so I’ll just ramble a bit and get this posted. If Rothfuss can’t write a review, I shouldn’t worry if I can’t.

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The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane

by Neil Gaiman
Hardcover, 181 pg.
William Morrow Books, 2013

I like myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.

Adult stories never made sense, and they were so slow to start. They made me feel like there were secrets. Masonic, mythic secrets to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?

While not properly a myth, there is a mythic quality to The Ocean at the End of the Lane. This slim volume is magic. Just magic. It struck me in a very personal place. Between lines like:

I was not happy as a child, although from time to time I was content. I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else.

Books were safer than other people anyway.

and

I went away in my head, into a book. That was where I went whenever real life was too hard or too inflexible.

I can’t remember a narrator I identified with as much as I have this one, that’s where my head was as a child — I don’t think I could’ve come close to putting it into those words then . . . but now? I tell you, those words resonated with me.

Other than a little time with the narrator as an adult bookending the novel, this is primarily a story about a boy — but this isn’t a children’s book. Yeah, Coraline and The Graveyard Book aren’t your typical children’s books in subject or tone, but there’s something different about this. Yeah, there’s a sex scene, but that’s not what makes it adult fiction (not that it’d be appropriate elsewhere, obviously) but this is 1. a look at childhood from an adult perspective, it’s about looking back — kids wouldn’t be able to appreciate that and 2. honestly, I found it too frightening for kids. Since it’s told as a flashback, I knew the narrator would survive — but that didn’t keep me from being worried about what was going to happen to him in some pretty nasty situations.
The narrator tells us

I was a normal child. Which is to say, I was selfish and I was not entirely convinced of the existence of things that were not me and I was certain, stock-solid unshakably certain, that I was the most important thing in creation. There was nothing that was more important to me than I was.

and while remaining honest about children, as is typical with Gaiman, there’s an (over-?)romanticizing of childhood throughout The Ocean, this time coupled with a de-romanticizing of adulthood — or at least of grown-ups. We’re told,

grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.

Hard to argue with that.

Childhood friendship is also a theme in this book, but one I really don’t have a nice quote for — it’s something that Gaiman shows us throughout rather than telling us about. The Ocean is about the power of reading, and one good friend — which is all a lonely boy needs. And as we see here, the effect of that friendship and the memory of will last decades.

A quick, engrossing and moving read — with the added bonus that a quotation from “The Nightmare Song” got Mandy Patinkin’s voice stuck in my head for a while. A book I will return to soon.

Still don’t have a good answer to why “adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?”

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5 Stars