Thoughts, by Robert Marks
I AM FEELING the death, at 49, of Douglas Adams quite hard. Is it because he died suddenly, exercising in a gym after a warning of high blood pressure (for which I take medication)? Is it because he was six years younger than I am? Is it because we were both the same age (43, since you ask) when we became fathers? (Actually -- Ryan Packer corrects me -- DNA was, appropriately, 42, not 43.) Is it because I see his HHGG as in a direct line from Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python's Flying Circus, with the three phenomena appearing about ten years apart from 1959 to 1979? (Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett are still alive; John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, and Eric Idle are still alive; Douglas Adams is dead.) Is it because the kids and I (who have listened to the HHGG many times in the car) still wanted more of the radio/CD version of it, which was likely a forlorn hope, even when DNA was alive? Is it because irony and death should never mix? Or is it because Hazel died far too young, and DNA died even younger?
I met DNA twice. The first time was at the Santa Fe Institute in early 1992, when Hazel, the kids, and I were visiting for a fortnight, and he visited for a day, to talk to Stu Kaufmann and Chris Langton. We chatted around a table after DNA gave a small presentation on biological extinction -- he had recently written Last Chance to See, a first-hand account of the accelerating rate of plant and animal extinctions around the globe.
At the table he posed a real-world problem for us academics: in Madagascar there had been widespread land clearance. (Madagascar, a Gondwanic remnant, contains much unique plant and animal life, but it is a desparately poor, increasingly over-crowded country.) A lone tree survived next to busy road crossing the fields. A botanist, driving past one day, stopped, realised that the tree was the last of its kind, and so needed protection. But once a fence was erected, the tree became a source of interest for the local population: why the fence? the tree must be special -- perhaps it has magical or sexual powers. They began to take leaves, berries, bark.
The authorities responded with a higher fence, to prevent the tree's death and so the extinction of yet another species. The greater protection only confirmed the importance of the tree in the locals' minds. Thus a vicious circle was initiated.
What DNA wanted to know was: how to save the species, by saving the tree, the last of its line. (My solution, FWIW, was to tear down the fence, to announce that the tree was nothing special -- there was a hillside of such trees over the river -- and to hope that the mindset would be broken.)
I first heard the HHGG in 1979 from a portable tape deck, played around a campfire, near the confluence of the Jacobs and the Snowy Rivers, among the native cypresses in the mountains south of Jindabyne. A group of people from the AGSM -- Ian Johnstone, Andrew Hume, Kev Hill, June Olson, and I, inter alia, had gone white-water tubing on the Jacobs, and Ian brought along tapes of a strange, comic sci-fi series recently broadcast by 2JJJ. We gathered around every evening to hear another episode of The Book, intoned by Peter Jones, fondly remembered from the BBC-TV series, The Rag Trade. Since then, I have listened many times to copies of those first tapes, and latterly to HHGG on CDs bought in Cheltenham after the death of my cousin in the Cotswolds. It's the kids' favourite series.
In Santa Fe conversation turned to the Internet, this new phenomenon that DNA was eager to learn more about: what is email, he asked. How does one log in? read one's messages? get an account? I suggested that the SFI could give him an account, and so was directly responsible for DNA's first email account: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Three years ago DNA was in Sydney, and Bob Wood and I went and heard him at a sell-out session in the Sydney Town Hall, when he extemporised on the topics he had made famous: life, the universe and everything, his computer game, the h2g2.com site, and the possibility of a HHGG movie, finally. More recently, while driving from Palo Alto to Yosemite, the kids and I listened to The Making of the HHGG, and learnt that the answer, 42, was inspired by a training film DNA had made with John Cleese -- so there was a direct line, not just the Cambridge connection, between Monty Python and the HHGG.
A couple of years ago I cited the book version of the HHGG in a paper I wrote about the rising cost of legal services. In particular, I noted that DNA's refugees who crash-landed on prehistorical Earth were predominantly service-sector employees -- marketing types, management consultants, telephone sanitisers -- a judgement, echoing Marx, that the service sector is not really productive.
And yet DNA, an author and producer, was a direct refutation of this thesis. He said that the completely unexpected wealth and fame that accompanied publication of the HHGG books was like "an orgasm without the foreplay," but it was also a measure of the value that people around the world placed on the entertainment and insights he generated in us all.
Douglas Adams was a big man who had much to give and was always and everywhere generous with himself. May he rest in peace.
May 14, 2001.
Robert Marks, email@example.com