Dirk Maggs on Mostly Harmless
October 12 marked the 30th anniversary of Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Here are Dirk Maggs’s thoughts on the fifth and final book in the series Mostly Harmless:
This is a wonderful, terrible book. Wonderful in that it contains more of Douglas’s unique humour and driving obsessions than many of his other works of fiction. Terrible in its grand and utter finality.
Many other writers would have happily reunited the inhabitants of the Hitchhiker’s universe in such a way as to leave comfortable room for the next sequel. To send Arthur, Ford and company off on a series of diverting adventures and then return them safely home (wherever that may be) in time for tea (probably not dispensed by a Nutrimat appliance).
Douglas was only too aware of the expectations surrounding a new Hitchhiker’s book, so much so that the business of writing it was almost as dramatic as the content. Yet he could not turn out work to fit a template, even one he might have devised himself. Of course he would recycle good ideas from defunct (or nearly defunct projects) – his unused Doctor Who and the Krikketmen forming the core of Life, the Universe and Everything, for example, or Shada morphing into the labyrinthine world of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.
Mostly Harmless is a brave departure. Douglas was determined to challenge his characters and the reader in a maze of parallel plots. This was going to be a roller-coaster ride into the unknown, a tour of his passions and fears. No wonder he found it difficult to settle himself to writing it.
The tales of Douglas being locked in a hotel room in order to meet his deadline aren’t all apocryphal, but there’s a serious point in amongst the dinner party anecdotes. To innovate non-stop is an exhausting process, and the Hitchhiker’s novel represents his predictive imagination at its most extraordinary. The Guide Mark II is a chilling a prescient warning about mixing Artificial Intelligence with Corporate Venality. We are only just waking up to the box-ticking, goal-driven, share-and-enjoy surveillance society Douglas anticipated.
The book is also a snapshot of a creative mind struck by two complementary and equally chilling themes – Mortality and Extinction.
In the years leading up to the writing of this book Douglas’s general interest in the collision of science and the arts had hardened into a deep and abiding interest in the fate of life upon his home planet. His Last Chance To See project – tracking down and observing the Earth’s most threatened species – wasn’t a casual diversion, but an issue that gripped his conscience and fired his imagination.
In Mostly Harmless these themes are played out by characters we have grown to love. There is more than one threatened species in this book; as is the universe we experience every day of our lives, unconscious forces work blindly to react in entirely logical, unsentimental ways. Whether a butterfly flaps its wings or a meteorite strikes a lost intergalactic battleship, the first domino topples to create random – excuse me, Random – patterns. They intersect in a chillingly rational way.
Douglas works well outside the comfort zone of his reader and yet we laugh at the interplay of characters, the unique observational style with which he turns the mundane into the surreal, and the outright slapstick of scenes involving boghogs and security robots.
Then we arrive at the climax of this story and its sudden, shuddering halt. It’s hard not to feel a little bruised. But then we must remember that Conan Doyle tipped Sherlock Holmes over Reichenbach Falls, but eventually gave into sentiment and his bank manager.
When Douglas first proposed that we being Hitchhiker’s full circle and complete the saga on radio – where it all began – I was thrilled to be his choice to finish the job, and intensely curious as to what his ideas were for its ending. With three novels to plan, starting with the epic sweep of Life, the Universe and Everything – which he christened ‘The Tertiary Phase’ – we did not discuss Mostly Harmless in much detail but he admitted that he would like to write another Hitchhiker book ‘with a happier ending’.
In fact, the brave twist in the tail of this story can be seen as ironic, not cataclysmic. Douglas is quietly waiting for us to work out for ourselves that something bigger is going on than the intrigues of Men, Mice and Vogons. Because the premise governing the operation of the Guide Mark II leaves him considerable wiggle room for a further book about Arthur, Ford and Co. The fact that he did not find time to write it was the tragic part.
Because Douglas hinted that he might have yet more adventures for Arthur, and to provide closure in his absence, the final episode of our radio version of Mostly Harmless – ‘The Quintessential Phase’ – concluded with a coda consisting of several possible happier endings, some of which looped back to previous iterations of Arthur’s life. This provided a less disturbing resolution if listeners chose to listen on; but the end of the tale as Douglas left it was still there to stop at if they’d rather not.
But here’s the thing: regardless of any thoughts upon a future for the Hitchhiker’s characters by the rest of us, the ending of this book is Douglas’s final published word on the subject and, taken on its own terms, is as brave an act by an author with his own creation as can be imagined.
Dirk Maggs – Director, Dramatizer & Co-Producer of BBC 4’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Tertiary, Quandary and Quintessential Phases