AMERICAN ATHEISTS: Mr. Adams, you have been described as a “radical Atheist.” Is this accurate?
DOUGLAS ADAMS: I think I use the term radical rather loosely, just for emphasis. If you describe yourself as “Atheist,” some people will say, “Don’t you mean ‘Agnostic’?” I have to reply that I really do mean Atheist.”…I really do mean Atheist. I really do not believe that there is a god – in fact I am convinced that there is not a god (a subtle difference). I see not a shred of evidence to suggest that there is one. It’s easier to say that I am a radical Atheist, just to signal that I really mean it, have thought about it a great deal, and that it’s an opinion I hold seriously. It’s funny how many people are genuinely surprised to hear a view expressed so strongly.
Douglas Adams was a cult British comic radio dramatist, amateur musician and author, most notably of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series (HHGG or H2G2). Hitchhiker’s began on radio, and developed into a “trilogy” of five books (which sold more than fifteen million copies during his lifetime) as well as a television series, a towel, a computer game and a feature film that was completed after Adams’s death. He was known to some fans as Bop Ad (after his illegible signature), or by his initials “DNA”.
In addition to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams wrote or co-wrote three stories of science fiction staple Doctor Who, and served the series as Script Editor during the seventeenth season. His other written works include the Dirk Gently novels, and co-author credits on two Liff books and Last Chance to See, itself based on a radio series. Adams also originated the idea for the computer game Starship Titanic, which was realized by a company that Adams co-founded, and adapted into a novel by Terry Jones. A posthumous collection of essays and other material, including an incomplete novel, was published as The Salmon of Doubt in 2002. His fans and friends also knew Adams as an environmental activist, a self-described “radical atheist” and a lover of fast cars, cameras, the Apple Macintosh, and other “techno gizmos.” He was a keen technologist, using such inventions as e-mail and Usenet before they became widely popular, or even widely known.
Towards the end of his life, he was a sought-after lecturer on topics including technology and the environment. Since his death at the age of 49, he is still widely revered in science fiction and fantasy fandom circles.
Douglas Adams was born to Janet (Donovan) Adams (now Janet Thrift) and Christopher Douglas Adams in Cambridge, England. His parents had one other child together, Susan, who was born in March 1955. His parents separated and divorced in 1957, and Douglas, Susan, and Janet moved in with Janet’s parents, the Donovans, in Brentwood, Essex. Douglas’s grandmother kept her house as an official RSPCA refuge for hurt animals, which “exacerbated young Douglas’s hayfever and asthma.”
Christopher Adams remarried in July 1960, to Mary Judith Stewart (born Judith Robertson). From this marriage, Douglas Adams had a half-sister, Heather. Janet remarried in 1964, to a veterinarian, Ron Thrift, providing two more half-siblings to Douglas: Jane and James Thrift.
Education and early works
Adams first attended Primrose Hill Primary School in Brentwood, Essex. He took the exams and interviewed for Brentwood School at age six, and attended the Preparatory School from 1959 to 1964, then the main school till 1970. He was in the top stream, and specialised in the arts in the sixth form, after which he stayed an extra term in a special seventh form class, customary in the school for those preparing for Oxbridge entrance exams.
While at the prep school, he had an English class, taught by Frank Halford, where Halford awarded Adams the only ten out of ten of his entire teaching career for a creative writing exercise. Adams remembered this for the rest of his life, especially when facing writer’s block. Some of Adams’s earliest writing was published at the school, such as a report on the school’s Photography Club in The Brentwoodian (in 1962) or spoof reviews in the school magazine Broadsheet (edited by Paul Neil Milne Johnstone). Adams also had a letter and short story published nationally in the UK in the boys’ magazine The Eagle in 1965. He met Griff Rhys Jones, who was in the year below, at the school, and was in the same class as “Stuckist” artist Charles Thomson; all three appeared together in a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in 1968. He was six feet tall (1.83 m) by the time he was 12, and he stopped growing only at 6’5″ (1.96 m).
On the strength of a bravura essay on religious poetry that mixed the Beatles with William Blake, he was awarded a place at St John’s College, Cambridge to read English, entering in 1971. Adams attempted early on to get into the Footlights Dramatic Club, with which several other names in British Comedy had been affiliated. He was, however, turned down, and started to write and perform in revues with Will Adams (no relation) and Martin Smith, forming a group called “Adams-Smith-Adams.” Later, on another attempt to join Footlights, Adams was encouraged by Simon Jones and found himself working with Rhys Jones, among others. In 1974, Adams graduated with a B.A. in English literature.
Some of his early work appeared on BBC2 (television) in 1974, in an edited version of the Footlights Revue from Cambridge, that year. A version of the same revue performed live in London’s West End led to Adams being “discovered” by Monty Python’s Graham Chapman. The two formed a brief writing partnership, and Adams earned a writing credit in one episode (episode 45: “Party Political Broadcast on Behalf of the Liberal Party”) of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In the sketch, a man who had been stabbed by a nurse arrives at his doctor’s office bleeding profusely from the stomach, when the doctor makes him fill out numerous senseless forms before he can administer treatment (a joke he later incorporated into the Vogons’ obsession with paperwork). Adams also contributed to a sketch on the album for Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Douglas also had two “blink and you miss them” appearances in the fourth series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. At the beginning of Episode 42, “The Light Entertainment War,” Adams is in a surgeon’s mask (as Dr. Emile Koning, according to the on-screen captions), pulling on gloves, while Michael Palin narrates a sketch that introduces one person after another, and never actually gets started. At the beginning of Episode 44, “Mr Neutron,” Adams is dressed in a “pepperpot” outfit and loads a missile onto a cart, driven by Terry Jones, who is calling out for scrap metal (“Any old iron…”). The two episodes were first broadcast in November 1974. Adams and Chapman also attempted a few non-Python projects, including Out of the Trees.
Some of Adams’s early radio work included sketches for The Burkiss Way in 1977 and The News Huddlines. He also co-wrote, again with Graham Chapman, the 20 February 1977 episode of Doctor on the Go, a sequel to the Doctor in the House television comedy series.
As Adams had difficulty selling his jokes and stories, he took a series of “odd jobs” in order to have some income. A biography from an early edition of one of the HHGG novels provides the following description of his early career:
After graduation he spent several years contributing material to radio and television shows as well as writing, performing, and sometimes directing stage revues in London, Cambridge and at the Edinburgh Fringe. He has also worked at various times as a hospital porter, barn builder, chicken shed cleaner, bodyguard, radio producer and script editor of Doctor Who.
Adams held the job as a bodyguard in the mid-1970s. He was employed by an Arab family, which had made its fortune in oil (and were from Qatar, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica). He had a couple of favourite anecdotes about the job: one story related that the family once ordered one of everything from a hotel’s menu, tried all of the dishes, and sent out for hamburgers. Another story had to do with a prostitute, sent to the floor Adams was guarding one evening. They acknowledged each other as she entered, and an hour later, when she left, she is said to have remarked, “At least you can read while you’re on the job.”
In 1979, Adams and John Lloyd wrote the scripts for two half-hour episodes of Doctor Snuggles: “The Remarkable Fidgety River” and “The Great Disappearing Mystery” (episodes seven and twelve). John Lloyd was also co-author of two episodes from the original “Hitchhiker” radio series (Fit the Fifth and Fit the Sixth (a.k.a. Episodes Five and Six, see explanation below)), as well as The Meaning of Liff and The Deeper Meaning of Liff. Lloyd and Adams also collaborated on an SF movie comedy project based on The Guinness Book of World Records, which would have starred John Cleese as the UN Secretary General, and had a race of aliens beating humans in athletic competitions, but the humans winning in all of the “absurd” record categories. This latter project never proceeded past a treatment.
After the first radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide became successful, Adams was made a BBC radio producer, working on Week Ending and a pantomime called Black Cinderella Two Goes East. He left the position after six months to become the script editor for Doctor Who.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a concept for a science-fiction comedy radio series pitched by Adams and radio producer Simon Brett to BBC Radio 4 in 1977. Adams came up with an outline for a pilot episode, as well as a few other stories (reprinted in Neil Gaiman’s book Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Companion) that could potentially be used in the series.
According to Adams, the idea for the title The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy occurred to him while he lay drunk in a field in Innsbruck, Austria (though he joked that the BBC would instead claim it was Spain “because it’s easier to spell” ), gazing at the stars. He had been wandering the countryside while carrying a book called the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to Europe when he ran into a town where, as he humorously describes, everyone was either “deaf” and “dumb” or only spoke languages he couldn’t. After wandering around and drinking for a while, he went to sleep in the middle of a field and was inspired by his inability to communicate with the townspeople. He later said that due to his constantly retelling this story of inspiration, he no longer had any memory of the moment of inspiration itself, and only remembered his retellings of that moment. A postscript to M. J. Simpson’s biography of Adams, Hitchhiker, provides evidence that the story was in fact a fabrication and that Adams had conceived the idea some time after his trip around Europe.
Despite the original outline, Adams was said to make up the stories as he wrote. He turned to John Lloyd for help with the final two episodes of the first series. Lloyd contributed bits from an unpublished science fiction book of his own, called GiGax. However, very little of Lloyd’s material survived in later adaptations of Hitchhiker’s, such as the novels and the TV series. The TV series itself was based on the first six radio episodes, but sections contributed by Lloyd were largely re-written.
BBC Radio 4 broadcast the first radio series weekly in the UK in March and April 1978. Following the success of the first series, another episode was recorded and broadcast, which was commonly known as the Christmas Episode. A second series of five episodes was broadcast one per night, during the week of 21 January – 25 January 1980.
While working on the radio series (and with simultaneous projects such as The Pirate Planet) Adams developed problems keeping to writing deadlines that only got worse as he published novels. Adams was never a prolific writer and usually had to be forced by others to do any writing. This included being locked in a hotel suite with his editor for three weeks to ensure that So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish was completed. He was quoted as saying, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
The books formed the basis for other adaptations, such as three-part comic book adaptations for each of the first three books, an interactive text-adventure computer game, and a photo illustrated edition, published in 1994. This latter edition featured a 42 Puzzle designed by Adams, which was later incorporated into paperback covers of the first four “Hitchhiker’s” novels (the paperback for the fifth re-used the artwork from the hardcover edition). Adams also began attempts to turn the first Hitchhiker’s novel into a movie in 1980, making several trips to Los Angeles, California, and working with a number of Hollywood studios and potential producers. When he died in 2001 in California, he had been trying again to get the movie project started with Disney, which had bought the rights in 1998. The screenplay finally got a posthumous re-write by Karey Kirkpatrick, was green-lit in September 2003, and the resulting movie was released in 2005.
Radio Producer Dirk Maggs had consulted with Adams in 1993 about creating a third radio series, based on the third novel in the Hitchhiker’s series. They also vaguely discussed the possibilities of radio adaptations of the final two novels in the five-book “trilogy.” As with the movie, this project was only realized after Adams’s death. The third series, The Tertiary Phase, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in September 2004 and was subsequently released on audio CD. Douglas Adams himself can be heard playing the part of Agrajag. So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish and Mostly Harmless made up the fourth and fifth radio series, respectively (on radio they were titled The Quandary Phase and The Quintessential Phase) and these were broadcast in May and June of 2005, and also subsequently released on Audio CD. The last episode in the last series (with a new, “more upbeat” ending) concluded with, “The very final episode of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams is affectionately dedicated to its author.”
Adams sent the script for the HHGG pilot radio programme to the Doctor Who production office in 1978, and was commissioned to write The Pirate Planet (see below). He had also previously attempted to submit a potential movie script, called “Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen,” which later became his novel Life, the Universe, and Everything (which in turn became the third Hitchhiker’s Guide radio series). Adams then went on to serve as script editor on the show for its seventeenth season in 1979. Altogether, he wrote three Doctor Who serials starring Tom Baker as the Doctor.
Adams was also known to allow in-jokes from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to appear in the Doctor Who stories he wrote and other stories on which he served as Script Editor. Conversely, at least one reference to Doctor Who was worked into a Hitchhiker’s novel. In Life, the Universe and Everything, two characters travel in time and land on the pitch at Lord’s Cricket Ground. The reaction of the radio commentators to their sudden appearance is very similar to a scene in the eighth episode of the 1965-66 story The Daleks’ Master Plan, which has the Doctor’s TARDIS materialise on the pitch at Lord’s, with the reactions of the match’s commentators.
Elements of Shada and City of Death were reused in Adams’s later novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, in particular the character of Professor Chronotis. Big Finish Productions eventually remade Shada as an audio play starring Paul McGann as the Doctor. Accompanied by partially animated illustrations, it was webcast on the BBCi website in 2003, and subsequently released as a two-CD set later that year. An omnibus edition of this version was broadcast on the digital radio station BBC7 on 10 December 2005.
Adams is credited with introducing a fan of his, the zoologist Richard Dawkins, to Dawkins’ future wife, Lalla Ward, who had played the part of Romana in Doctor Who.
When he was at school, he wrote and performed a play called Doctor Which.
In between Adams’s first trip to Madagascar with Mark Carwardine in 1985, and their series of travels that formed the basis for the radio series and non-fiction book Last Chance to See, Adams wrote two other novels with a new cast of characters. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency was first published in 1987, and was described by its author as “a kind of ghost-horror-detective-time-travel-romantic-comedy-epic, mainly concerned with mud, music and quantum mechanics.” It received many rave reviews from American newspapers upon its publication in the USA. Adams borrowed a few ideas from two Doctor Who stories he had worked on: City of Death and Shada.
A sequel novel, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul was published a year later. This was an entirely original work, Adams’s first since So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. Reviewers, however, were not as generous with praise for the second volume as they had been for the first. After the obligatory book tours, Adams was off on his round-the-world excursion which supplied him with the material for Last Chance to See.
Adams was a self-declared “radical atheist”, though he used the term for emphasis, so that he would not be asked if he in fact meant agnostic. He stated in an interview with American Atheists that this was easier and conveyed the fact that he really meant it, had thought about it a great deal, and that it was an opinion he held seriously. He was convinced that there is no God, having never seen one shred of evidence to convince him otherwise, and devoted himself instead to secular causes like environmentalism.
Environmentalism and Animal Rights
Adams was also an environmental activist who campaigned on behalf of a number of endangered species. This activism included the production of the non-fiction radio series Last Chance to See, in which he and naturalist Mark Carwardine visited rare species such as the kakapo, and the publication of a tie-in book of the same name. In 1992, this was made into a CD-ROM combination of audio book, eBook and picture slide show a decade before such things became fashionable. His environmental activism is also recounted in the book The Salmon of Doubt in a short account of a hike he once made across the plains of Africa while wearing a rhino suit.
Since 2003, the British charity organization Save the Rhino (one of several similar charities supported by Adams) have held an annual Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture around the time of his birthday to raise money for environmental campaigns. The lectures in the series are:
2003 Richard Dawkins — Queerer than we can suppose: the strangeness of science
2004 Robert Swan — on walking across Antarctica and his environmental work there
2005 Mark Carwardine — Last Chance to See… Just a bit more
2006 Robert Winston — Is the Human an Endangered Species?
Adams and Mark Carwardine contributed the ‘Meeting a Gorilla’ passage from Last Chance to See to the book The Great Ape Project. This book, edited by Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer launched a wider-scale project in 1993, which calls for the extension of moral equality to include all great apes, human or nonhuman.
Adams was a serious fan of technology. Though he did not buy his first word processor until 1982, he had considered one as early as 1979. He was quoted as saying that until 1982, he had difficulties with “the impenetrable barrier of jargon. Words were flying backwards and forwards without concepts riding on their backs.” In 1982, his first purchase was a ‘Nexus’. In 1983, when he and Jane Belson went out to Los Angeles, he bought a DEC Rainbow. Upon their return to England, Adams bought an Apricot, then a BBC Micro and a Tandy 100. In Last Chance to See Adams mentions his Cambridge Z88, which he had taken to Zaire on a quest to find the Northern White Rhinoceros.
Adams’s posthumously published work, The Salmon of Doubt, features multiple articles written by Douglas on the subject of technology, including reprints of articles that originally ran in MacUser magazine, and in The Independent on Sunday newspaper. In these, Adams claims that one of the first computers he ever saw was a Commodore PET, and that his love affair with the Apple Macintosh first began after seeing one at Infocom’s headquarters in Massachusetts in 1983 (though that was actually very likely an Apple Lisa).
Adams was a Macintosh user from the time they first came out in 1984 until his death in 2001. Adams was also an “Apple Master,” one of several celebrities whom Apple made into spokespeople for its products (other Apple Masters included John Cleese and Gregory Hines). Adams’s contributions included a rock video that he created using the first version of iMovie with footage featuring his daughter Polly. The video can still be seen on Adams’s .Mac homepage. Adams even installed and started using the first release of Mac OS X in the weeks leading up to his death. His very last post to his own forum was in praise of Mac OS X and the possibilities of its Cocoa programming framework. Adams can also be seen in the Omnibus tribute included with the Region One/NTSC DVD release of the TV adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide using Mac OS X (version 10.0.x) on his PowerBook G3.
Adams used e-mail extensively from the technology’s infancy, adopting a very early version of e-mail to correspond with Steve Meretzky during the pair’s collaboration on Infocom’s version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. While living in New Mexico in 1993 he set up another e-mail address and began posting to his own USENET newsgroup: alt.fan.douglas-adams. Many of his posts are now archived through Google. Challenges to the authenticity of his identity later led Adams to set up a message forum on his own website to avoid the issue.
In the early 1980s, Adams had an affair with married novelist Sally Emerson, to whom he dedicated his book Life, the Universe, and Everything. Emerson returned to her husband after splitting with Adams in 1981, and Adams was soon afterward introduced by friends to Jane Belson, with whom he later became romantically involved. Belson was the “lady barrister” mentioned in the jacket-flap biography printed in his books during the mid-1980s (“He [Adams] lives in Islington with a lady barrister and an Apple Macintosh”).
The two lived in Los Angeles together during 1983 while Adams worked on an early screenplay adaptation to make Hitchhiker into a Hollywood movie. When the deal fell through, they moved to London, and after several separations and an aborted engagement, they were married on 25 November 1991. Adams and Belson had one daughter together, Polly Jane Rocket Adams, born on 22 June 1994, in the year that Adams turned 42. In 1999, the family moved from London to Santa Barbara, California, where they lived until Adams’s death. Following his funeral, Jane Belson and Polly Adams returned to London, where they currently reside.
Adams died of a heart attack at the age of 49 on Friday 11th May 2001, while working out at a private gym in Montecito, California. He is survived by his wife Jane and daughter Polly. He was cremated, and his ashes were buried in Highgate Cemetery in north London.
In May 2002, The Salmon of Doubt was published, containing many short stories, essays, and letters, and eulogies from Richard Dawkins, Stephen Fry (in the UK edition), Christopher Cerf (in the U.S. edition), and Terry Jones (in the U.S. paperback edition). It also includes eleven chapters of his long-awaited but unfinished novel, The Salmon of Doubt, which was to be a new Dirk Gently and/or HHGG novel, or neither.
Other events after Adams’s death included the completion of Shada, radio dramatizations of the final three books in the Hitchhiker’s series, and the completion of the film adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.