It’s a tough universe out there, and no one knows that better than Arthur Dent, a mild-mannered Englishman who wakes up one morning to find his house, and indeed the planet Earth, about to be demolished to make way for an intergalactic freeway. Arthur manages to hitch a ride on a passing spaceship and embarks on a staggering series of adventures involving the President of the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox (“adventurer, ex-hippie…terribly bad at personal relationships”), a depressed robot named Marvin (“I’m not getting you down at all, am I?”), and some of the great questions to face mankind, like “Why are people born? Why do they die? Why do they want to spend so much of the intervening time wearing digital watches?” Dent also discovers that the human race was fathered by salesmen, hairstylists and telephone sanitizers evicted from their planet, Golgafrincham, two million years ago, and that the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything is: 42.
“Forty-two is the funniest of the two-digit numbers,” explains Douglas Adams, 30, a large (6’5″, 210-pound) Englishman who has chronicled Arthur Dent’s adventures in three successful novels, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and the recently published best-seller Life, the Universe and Everything (Harmony Books, $9.95). The earlier books inspired a BBC-TV series (PBS aired it), and Adams has sold the movie rights to the trilogy to producer Ivan (Animal House) Reitman. Why have the books done so well? “I’m afraid that’s impossible to answer,” he shrugs. “The only thing I can say, which sounds immodest, is that I happen to think they’re good stuff.”
Critics generally agree. Adams’ strengths are a light touch and an irreverent attitude toward technology and bureaucracy. His elevator doors don’t just open, they say “Thank you for making a simple door very happy” with the mellifluous insincerity of a complaints department clerk. When the rejected Golgafrinchans colonize Earth, they hold 573 committee meetings and still don’t manage to discover fire. When Arthur’s alien pal, Ford Prefect, points out that the committee hasn’t made any progress on the wheel, a marketing consultant snipes, “All right, Mr. Wiseguy, you’re so clever, you tell us what color it should be.” Says Adams, “If you just do what’s funny—what you think is funny—then the point usually comes through.”
The son of a theology teacher and a nurse, Adams earned a degree in English literature at Cambridge in 1974 and scraped by for a while by writing radio and TV comedy. In 1976 he was broke and took a job as a bodyguard for the royal al-Thani family of Qatar. “The Arabs go to hotels all around the world and watch television,” Adams reports. “My job was to stand outside the door, bow occasionally, and if anyone showed up with a hand grenade, run.” He also began writing Hitchhiker’s Guide, which he first sold as a radio show.
Adams attributes some of his success to his height. “Six-foot-five is the regulation height for British comedy writers,” he notes. “John Cleese is 6’5″, Peter Cook, I think, is 6’5″. Graham Chapman is 6’4″, but then he’s 4 percent less funny.” Adams shares his 10-room flat in North London with his girlfriend, Jane Belson, 30, a barrister, plays guitar with a passion, and likes going to zoos, although on a recent visit to Los Angeles’ Marineland he was disturbed to find dolphins performing to disco music. “They ask you to believe that dolphins are intelligent creatures and also love disco, which I think are incompatible positions,” he says. Now home after a three-month lecture-and-publicity tour of Australia and the U.S., he’s uncertain whether Arthur Dent’s adventures will continue. “After I wrote the second Hitchhiker book, I swore on the souls of my ancestors that I would not write a third,” he says. “Having written the third, I can swear on the souls of the souls of my ancestors there will not be another. But I haven’t started working on it yet.”