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Onyx reviews: The Salmon of Doubt by Douglas Adams

When Douglas Adams died unexpectedly last year at 49, the earth's comedic axis tilted noticeably. Adams' primary creation, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a trilogy spanning five books, is as oft quoted as Monty Python's The Holy Grail. His sense of humor was particularly British, slightly askew and addictive for those who knew his books.

His entire body of work is comprised of fewer than ten books, but his influence on the genre of comedic adventure is long-lasting. The Hitchhiker's Guide alone had numerous incarnations—as a novel, a radio drama, a computer adventure game, a BBC TV series in the Dr. Who style and was destined to be a feature film.

After his death, his friends and family scanned his hard drives and backup disks to see what remained of his unpublished work. This is a cautionary note to writers! If you don't want something to come out posthumously, take care.

The Salmon of Doubt is a collection of letters, essays, speeches, short works of fiction, newspaper columns and the opening chapters of his long-awaited third Dirk Gently novel, for which the collection is titled. This closing piece is, perhaps, the book's weakest entry. Adams had been struggling with the book for a decade and had reached the point where he realized it really wanted to be another Hitchhiker novel instead. The cobbled-together fragments from several different drafts are almost completely devoid of Adams' trademark wit.

The rest of the collection, though, provides rare insight. They reveal him to be a deep thinker on numerous social and popular issues. His favorite work was the non-fiction book Last Chance to See, in which he journeyed to exotic locales to explore the plights of animals on the brink of extinction. An unabashed atheist, one of the essays is an exploration of the taboo of challenging religious beliefs.

He waxes philosophical on such diverse subjects as his oversized nose, the Beatles, scotch, the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, why Americans can't make a decent cup of tea, P.G. Wodehouse and the existence of an artificial God. One letter is directed at a Hollywood producer who had been studiously avoiding Adams' calls and letters concerning yet another attempt to film Hitchhiker. It closes with a page and a half of contact information, including the phone number for his supermarket and the names of several restaurants he might conceivably be at. He comments, "If you manage not to reach me, I shall know you're trying not to, very, very hard indeed." The letter—classic Adams—worked.

Also included are two rare works of fiction, "The Private Life of Genghis Khan" and "Young Zaphod Plays it Safe," featuring one of the more colorful characters from the Hitchhiker series.

Adams was a notorious procrastinator. On more than one occasion, editors lured him to a hotel room to guide him through the completion of a novel. Everything captured his interest, luring him from deadlines. He was likely to decamp to Australia to compare a new generation of personal submarines with manta rays or to hike Mount Kilimanjaro dressed like a rhinoceros.

Readers will come away from The Salmon of Doubt mourning the loss of not only a comedic genius but also an observer and commentator concerned about the future of our planet. Perhaps he never intended for these pieces to be published, but they provide a more complete image of the man who had everyone convinced that the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything was: 42.

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