Don’t Panic by David Solomons
Until I came to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy all my science-fictional heroes wore space-suits or powered armour, wielded lightsabers or plugged aliens with blasters. Douglas Adams put his hero in a dressing-gown. And armed him with a talking guide-book.
I was 12 years old when I first picked up a copy of Hitchhiker’s and its sequel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Don’t Panic – that’s the phrase printed on the front of the eponymous Guide. And what better advice to offer a tentative youngster about to enter the world? At that age, the real world feels as strange and unsettling as any in fiction. You need a guide. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve come to appreciate just how much Hitchhiker’s has steered me through my life.
I vividly remember buying the books from a store in Central Station in my hometown of Glasgow, falling into the pages on the train home to the suburbs, and never fully resurfacing. It’s at once a very suburban story – concerned with bureaucratic details of council planning and road bypasses – and a story on a galactic scale – concerned with bureaucratic Vogons and interspace bypasses. It’s about the end of the world, but firmly rooted in the quotidian. You won’t find any Independence Day (the movie, not the holiday) fireworks here.
Instead of being appalled at the lack of photon torpedoes, my twelve year-old self was delighted. Adams revels in mind-bending ideas, sudden and outrageous shifts of perspective, and of course, he is one of the funniest humans ever to put finger to Apple keyboard. If novels are meant to open your eyes to a wider world, then he opened mine to a whole new universe.
Since that first reading, Hitchhiker’s has always been the book I go back to when I want the reassurance of the familiar. But more than that, I see now just how much it has fuelled my creative life. Without Douglas Adams I wouldn’t have been able to imagine writing a novel like My Brother is a Superhero, in which the fantastic and the humdrum happily co-habit. I never had the opportunity to thank him in person. However, I got close, and it was all thanks to one of his own inventions.
In his books the heroes travel through space (and time) using a number of unconventional methods, but none more dazzlingly inventive than the spaceship Heart of Gold, which as any frood who really knows where his towel is will tell you, draws its power from something called the Infinite Improbability Drive.
When activated the drive whisks the ship through every point in the universe simultaneously, and often to a destination that its occupants didn’t know they wanted, but turns out they needed. It’s a great plot device. Need your characters to leap from one far-flung situation to another with minimal exposition? Push the big red button. (No, not that big red button!) But that’s not my point. Here’s the thing. I think it’s real. And I’m pretty sure I used the Infinite Improbability Drive.
At a point in my life when my wife and I were contemplating a move, we were in the fortunate position to be considering London or LA.
I pushed the big red button.
Next thing we knew we’d arrived in a sleepy village in the depths of the English countryside, in the county of Dorset. The very definition of the middle of nowhere. And the Douglas Adams-y part couldn’t have been more Adams-y. I discovered that we were living round the corner (quite literally) from where he had written The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
As anyone who has read about Adams will tell you, he is an unlikely author to be inspired by. Yes, I know he possessed one of the great imaginations of the age, boundless inventiveness, an intricate, puzzle-box wit and a streak of humanity a parsec wide. However, if you’re a writer looking for a role model – with emphasis on the model – you should pick someone like Steinbeck. You know, finishes one novel, puts the manuscript aside, and starts writing the next. On the flipside, one of Douglas Adams’ most well-known quotes is this: ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’
The stories of his writer’s block are legion. At one point, reportedly, he had to be physically locked in a room with his agent to turn out pages (if you believe everything you read). But we don’t choose our heroes.
Soon after learning of his connection to our new home, I had a dream of Douglas. In it, I saw him at a highlights’ reel of the county’s most picturesque locations. Lying on the beach before the sea arch of Durdle Door. Pacing the stark hilltop ruins of Corfe Castle. Walking the ridges of the ancient hill fort at Hambledon Hill. And at each of these inspirational scenes he is, of course, stuck. Blocked on his latest novel. And then he is home again, in the village just around the corner, sitting at his desk. And I’m at mine, poised over my keyboard. And if I look out my window I’m sure I can see him at his. And for the first and only time in my life I know that Douglas Adams and I are both thinking exactly the same infinite, improbable thought:
What happens next?
David Solomons has been writing screenplays for many years. His first feature film was an adaptation of Five Children and It (starring Kenneth Branagh and Eddie Izzard, with gala screenings at the Toronto and Tribeca Film Festivals). His latest film is a romantic comedy set in the world of publishing, Not Another Happy Ending (Karen Gillan, Iain de Caestecker), which closed the Edinburgh International Film Festival. My Brother is a Superhero is his first novel for children. He was born in Glasgow and now lives in Dorset.