So, Douglas Adams claimed: “I’ve started most science fiction books but only got to about page 10, I’m afraid, usually.”
Yet Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is not only squarely Space Opera, it’s also part of the Space Opera tradition. Without the 10-page statement we’d just assume Douglas Adams had read the likes of Edmond Hamilton and, given the resonances, it’s fairly obvious that he did at some point and perhaps forgot about it (read first entry in this series for details).
Does this matter?
Adams probably wasn’t dissembling. Memory is untrustworthy.
However, if he was dissembling — if you reread the statement, he hedges a little (“most…. usually”) — then he had every right to.
Douglas Adams lived at a dark time when the cultural establishment, and thus those who looked to it for guidance, had a patronising attitude to popular entertainment in general and SF in particular. My old High School English teacher — who in all other ways was fantastic — actually had a poster on the wall explaining that real literature was about character and… literary stuff… and thus Science Fiction wasn’t literature.
SF was skin to put over magical realism or fairy tales, or just “a bit of fun” (chortle). Meanwhile anything that was SF&F but had forced itself into mainstream educated culture was treated as “not really genre”. Tolkien was treated as a sort of modern fabulist, not a Fantasy writer. Writers like Vonnegut were “literary” and “satirical”. Books like 1984 were “political allegories” or something else clever… and so on.
The logic was that SF&F was rubbish, so anything good could not be SF&F. Small wonder then if Douglas Adams wasn’t rushing to flaunt his imaginative roots.
But, was he actually laughing at us?
There’s too much exuberant creativity in Hitchhiker’s Guide, and — as per my last blog post — the world-building and plot belong to Space Opera. He mostly uses SF to poke fun at mid-20th-century culture — all that stuff about bistros, digital watches, cups of tea, bureaucracy, bypasses, therapists… What’s left — the stuff that still makes us laugh — is either *just* humour, often surreal, or else sends up more general human failings.
However, spotting strands of humor ignores the way he weaves them together for effect. For example…
…men were real men, women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri.
On one level it’s just an amusing juxtaposition. On another, it ridicules the urge to hark back to the good old days, whether the older generation looking back to WWII, or Hollywood presenting traditional gender roles in Westerns.
It’s also fine writing because it is specific and evokes the wider setting — and DA was always good at turning throwaway lines into continuity — pretty much the way Harold Lamb does. There are good reasons why people still read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
So I think that knowing Adams was more familiar with Space Opera than he let on should enhance our enjoyment of his magnum opus, and should not detract from our respect for him. He was of his time (and often ahead of his time).
However there are three reasons why beyond page 10 matters.
First, “spot the influence” is a great and respectable parlour game, one played at a high level by academics.
Second, it’s great to identify Space Opera similar to HHGTTG, albeit without the humor. It means more stuff to read. (This is like being a Howard fan and discovering Harold Lamb.)
Third, and most important…
Well, that dark anti-SF&F age still lingers in places.
Sure, geeks now have our own self-sustaining community. However, we still have to go out into the wider world, face arbiters of taste who have practical power over us — like my old English teacher.
We’re not some embattled minority, but we are still people, and it’s nice to have some ammunition with which to fight our corner. Now when somebody is dismissive of Science Fiction, I can say, “Well I see Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on your shelf and that’s Space Opera.”
M Harold Page (www.mharoldpage.com) has several franchise books on Amazon, plus a creative writing handbook, Storyteller Tools, explaining how he does it. He has no idea where his towel is, but has several swords to hand as he writes this.