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Don't Panic: Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

by Neil Gaiman

About.com Rating 3 Star Rating


Don't Panic by Neil Gaiman
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (H2G2), now incarnated as a major motion picture, hit U.S. theaters on April 29, 2005. The book version of Arthur Dent's escape from the destruction of the Earth with his friend Ford Prefect, and their subsequent adventures in the universe with Galactic President, Zaphod Beeblebrox; depressed android, Marvin; and Trillian, the only other human to survive Earth's destruction, is well known to its multitude of fans. The story's first appearance, however, was in 1978 as a six episode BBC radio series written by a then young writer-performer by the name of Douglas Adams.

Adams had recently graduated from Cambridge, where he'd written and performed sketch-comedy to little or no acclaim. He had made a few friends there, among them Simon Jones, who went on to play Arthur Dent in the radio and television versons of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Graham Chapman, one of six Monty Python players who had begun writing comedy with then classmate, John Cleese.
Adams formed a partnership with Chapman that was to be rather short-lived, fruitless, and full of drunken evenings together. The relationship afforded Adams the chance to write a couple of Monty Python's Flying Circus episodes, and even have a couple of walk-ons in the show, but little else came of it. At the same time, Douglas Adams was meeting with no success at promoting his ideas for a science fiction comedy to the legions of unimpressed television executives.

At 24 years of age, he'd already considered himself a failure as a comedy writer, when he pitched the idea for Hitchhiker's to a BBC radio producer. It was accepted. It was 1977. Nobody had any idea what they had started, least of all Douglas Adams.

By the airing of the sixth episode, Hitchhiker's had become a national phenomenon with a large cult following that was not only science fiction and radio fans (Hitchhiker's was the first comedy series to be produced in stereo), but a huge portion of the general public who had stumbled upon this hilarious story.
It wasn't long before Douglas Adams found himself in a deal with paperback publisher, Pan Books, for a book of the radio series. The book version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has enjoyed a massive worldwide following ever since, having now sold over 14 million copies, and that's just the first book of the eventual five-book trilogy.

In Don't Panic, Neil Gaiman examines the evolution of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in its various incarnations as a radio series, television series, L.P. record, computer game, interactive fiction, and most importantly, as the legendary five-book trilogy. Don't Panic was originally published in 1988 and is now in it's third edition. A huge Hitchhiker's fan, Neil Gaiman's research for the book included extensive interviews with Douglas Adams, and the book is consequently full of interesting quotations and anecdotes about the history of H2G2.
Don't Panic is rather choppily written with Gaiman sometimes referring the reader to other publications on The Hitchhiker's Guide, such as the Original Hitchhikers Radio Scripts. As such, the book has the feel of a small part of a curriculum of H2G2 required reading, as opposed to an entity unto its own. Gaiman also makes frequent and casual reference to the numerous British players in the early development of H2G2 with whom American readers may be less than familiar.

Douglas Adams died of a heart attack in 2001 at the age of 49. Don't Panic is not his biography. If you're looking for a biography of Douglas Adams, check out Wish You Were Here by Nick Webb, Adams' longtime friend and editor back when he was first signed by Pan Books. Don't Panic is a detailed historical reference to the evolution of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which I would recommend the casual fan pass by.

Conversely, zealous H2G2 enthusiasts navigating their way through the various wrinkles of Adams' creation will likely find Gaiman's book essential to their travels and deserving of prominent space in their backpack, right next to their towel.

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