The Digital Village
Who the hell is Douglas Adams? Remember the 80s? Remember The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? Teenagers today don't have anything like it. Remember the answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything? The answer was a number - 42 - and the book revolved around it.
"It was just a joke", says Douglas Adams casually. A very popular joke - Hitchhiker's, the first book in a "four-part trilogy" sold more than 15 million copies worldwide, was made into a BBC radio show, a BBC TV series, a computer game, even a bath towel, and soon there will be a movie (casting is about to begin and there are rumours that Jim Carey will play the character Zaphod Beeblebrox). It also gave DA the opportunity to co-found THE DIGITAL VILLAGE, an online entertainment company of such potential that even the villains of the book, the Vogons - "one of the most unpleasant races in the Galaxy - not actually evil, but bad tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous" - might have been tempted to conquer it.
"You mean Microsoft", he says with a laugh. Perhaps Douglas Adams has moved on to becoming a Vogon himself? "No. No. Definitely not. Death to all Vogons".
Hearsay leads us to believe that witty comedians are really the most miserable breed on the planet, but Douglas Adams turned out to be a perfectly amiable man with dancing eyes, exaggerated hand gestures and a sing-song, well-to-do English accent. And at six foot six, in a black polo shirt, dark houndstooth jacket and black pants, he had presence.
Almost two decades after the release of Hitchhiker's, he's keeping busy. One project is a television series, now on the boil, in Hollywood. The show, called The Secret Empire, features a character whose entire life is spent in Far North Queensland; Adams hopes the series goes ahead if only so he can have a reason to spend a lot of time there. Adams loves scuba diving and laments that there isn't a lot to be had in London.
This prolific writer says there is a bit of him that would love to live in Australia and scuba dive, but his wife, who is a barrister, has family from here who tell them that Australia is somewhere you leave, not go to live.
"My wife always says I have real estate eyes", he says, "because every time I go anywhere that I remotely like, I instantly start thinking, Ooh, would this be a good place to live?"
Adams' books are concerned with living conditions on other planets. Does he believe in aliens? "It's rather like saying do I believe there are any socks in the left-hand drawer of the cupboard upstairs? The fact is, at some point I will go upstairs and find out. The bigger question for me, after assessing the probabilities of life on other planets, is whether there's intelligent life on other planets? My guess would be that life may turn out to be quite plentiful, but intelligent life may be very rare indeed".
Everyone idolises someone, even Douglas Adams, who happily boasts about once playing a couple of numbers, on one of his left-hand guitars, with Pink Floyd. Although, he adds humbly, "I played the easy bit. If I could become several 'mes', one of me would definitely be a rock musician in a band like Pink Floyd. Do you know, I'm nearly old enough? One of me would be a computer engineer and software designer, and another would be an evolutionary biologist - which might give me an excuse to do a lot of scuba diving - and if I had've known what it was like earlier, I would have had lots of children". (He has one girl, Polly)
I spent two years completing a university thesis on a topic no-one else had covered - dissecting Adams's "trilogy" to find influences like Chaos Theory, and those favourites of tertiary communications departments, Descartes, Saussure and Roland Barthes, But I still wondered why the answer to the great question of the meaning of life was 42.
"It's a joke, just a joke. Somebody being on a quest for any answer is a frequent story form, so I decided that I'd have a go at that. I thought it would be funny if I gave just a number as the answer. Yet it had to be the most ordinary, everyday, common old garden sort of number, an inoffensive number, a number you can take home and introduce to your parents where there wouldn't be any embarrassment, so I came up with 42.
"People still ask me, is there a Tibetan sect called 42? And I say no, it's a joke, honestly, In the trilogy, I do this thing about the Earth having been set up as a computer….but everything has gone wrong, and what it (the computer) has come up with is: What is six times nine? which obviously isn't 42. It's amazing how many people point this out to me as if it's an extraordinary revelation. They say, Do you know that six times nine isn't 42? and I say, Yes, I know. I did maths. Then other people say, But of course - six times nine does equal 42 in base thirteen, was that the joke? I say, No, I don't actually make jokes in base thirteen and I don't know anybody who does. It was just a joke".
Hero worship can sometimes bear fruit. Douglas Adams turned out to be (in the word of Zaphod Beeblebrox) the "froodiest dood" I've ever met, and gave me my now most treasured possession. After two years' slogging away at the thesis, I treasure my new, autographed book more highly than any intergalactic hitchhiker treasured their towel.
Inside my copy of the four-book trilogy reads the most sensationally flattering autograph: "To Nicole, whose questions were much more clever than my answers. With words like these, he's won me over for life and left 42 for dead. So long and thanks for all the fish.
Interview by Nicole Lenoir-Jourdan for [oyster]