peteg's blog - noise - books - 2010 01 17 DouglasAdams SalmonOfDoubt

Douglas Adams: The Salmon of Doubt

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It has been an age since I've read anything by Douglas Adams. His style is at once familiar, an amiable bar-propping old friend, even when it is as travestied as it is here. I acquired this from Pete R.'s stash of books-to-toss, having not been tempted to read it for years, and almost wishing that I hadn't now.

Of course the prose is fine. What's lacking are those tangents, the sheer irrelevancy and irreverence to plots and characters that gave his earlier stuff its suspense and force. Then again, it might be the converse that I'm actually whinging about. This is a compilation of various rants, and most tantalisingly, bits of a third Dirk Gently. The editor goes out of his way to warn the reader that it's a let down, and don't be disappointed, it is.

The part I liked the most was the presumably previously unpublished Turncoat from October 2000. Here's the bit that struck the chord, slab-quoted Ramsey-style:

But nowadays everybody's a comedian, even the weather girls and continuity announcers. We laugh at everything. Not intelligently anymore, not with sudden shock, astonishment, or revelation, just relentlessly and meaninglessly. No more rain showers in the desert, just mud and drizzle everywhere, occasionally illuminated by the flash of paparazzi.

Creative excitement has gone elsewhere, to science and technology: new ways of seeing things, new understandings of the universe, continual new revelations about how life works, how we think, how we perceive, how we communicate. So this is my second point.

Where, thirty years ago, we used to start up rock bands, we now start up startups and experiment with new ways of communicating with each other and playing with the information we exchange. And when one idea fails, there's another, better one right behind it, and another and another, cascading out as fast as rock albums used to in the sixties.

There's always a moment when you start to fall out of love, whether it's with a person or an idea or a cause, even if it's one you only narrate to yourself years after the event: a tiny thing, a wrong word, a false note, which means that things can never be quite the same again. For me it was hearing a stand-up comedian make the following observation: "These scientists, eh? They're so stupid! You know those black-box flight recorders they put on aeroplanes? And you know they're meant to be indestructible? It's always the thing that doesn't get smashed? So why don't they make the planes out of the same stuff?"

The audience roared with laughter at how stupid scientists were, couldn't think their way out of a paper bag, but I sat feeling uncomfortable. Was I just being pedantic to feel that the joke didn't really work because flight recorders are made out of titanium and that if you made planes out of titanium rather than aluminium, they'd be far too heavy to get off the ground in the first place? I began to pick away at the joke. Supposing Eric Morecambe had said it? Would it be funny then? Well, not quite, because that would have relied on the audience seeing that Eric was being dumb — in other words, they would have had to know as a matter of common knowledge about the relative weights of titanium and aluminium. There was no way of deconstructing the joke (if you think this is obsessive behaviour, you should try living with it) that didn't rely on the teller and the audience complacently conspiring together to jeer at someone who knew more than they did. It sent a chill down my spine, and still does. I felt betrayed by comedy in the same way that gangsta rap now makes me feel betrayed by rock music. I also began to wonder how many of the jokes I was making were just, well, ignorant.