The Frood: The Authorised And Very Official History Of Douglas Adams & The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Jem Roberts (book review).
Fans of Douglas Adams have been relatively well served with books of biography and literary criticism, some adulatory and others notably less so. While the present book, ‘The Frood: The Authorised And Very Official History Of Douglas Adams & The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’, is unlikely to be the final word, it is at least pretty comprehensive or, at least, contains a sufficient diversity and range of amusing material it will keep most fans engaged and entertained.
It has to be said that this really is a book for fans. ‘Frood’ is, after all, a term from the ‘Hitchhikers’ universe used to refer to someone who is unusually cool and with-it. Indeed, the overarching theme is very much how Adams developed his unique brand of humour and, in particular, the genius (if you want to call it that) which gave rise to ‘The Hitchhikers Guide’ books and serials. Jem Roberts calls himself a comedy historian and this book was born out of his reading of the Adams Collection at Cambridge, essentially all the unpublished letters, drafts and other document preserved by Adams’ widow and ultimately handed onto the university. He was also able to work with Adams’ family and friends, providing an extra level of insight into the creative processes that made Adams tick.
So what do we get? The first chapter, ‘Creator’, is essentially the Adams-as-writer biography prior to the ‘The Hitchhikers Guide’, focusing somewhat on work done for the BBC. There’s also a lot of looking back at Adams’ years at Cambridge, especially his work with the famous Footlights drama club from whence sprang quite a lot of the BBC’s comic and light entertainment talent. There are some snippets of scripts from the early BBC era, too, and while these do prefigure ‘The Hitchhikers Guide’ in various ways, they aren’t especially funny it has to be said.
The next chapter, ‘Creation’, looks at the writing of ‘The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy’ in its literary, radio and televisual formats. There’s a lot of really in-depth stuff here as well as a vast quantity of anecdotes. One thread in particular stands out, Adams’ own unhappiness about how his story was sometimes developing and the need to go back and start all over. To be fair, some of his original ideas aren’t that good and, if anything, this underlines the fact Adams polished his ideas, as well as his prose, again and again before publication. That slick, smooth zaniness we take for granted didn’t come out of some innate genius but thanks to a lot of trial and error.
The third chapter, ominously titled ‘Nemesis’, reveals the tension between the success of ‘The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy’ and Adams’ desire to move onto new projects. Author Roberts also touches on the fact that Adams’ later books become steadily less compact and perfectly written. One anecdote explains how the fourth book ended up being written to a deadline imposed by the publishers. Adams was so far behind that his publishers all but locked him into a suite of rooms at a nice hotel in London, checking his progress every day to make sure he was keeping on track. The idea of any author being manhandled this was almost beggars belief, but it does say something about Adams that he could work this way at all, let alone produce a popular comic novel!
Part the fourth, ‘Escape’, is mostly about Adams’ post-Hitchhikers writing and activities leading up to his untimely death in 2001. These include his quite well known love/hate relationship with technology, which ultimately developed into an almost fanatical advocacy of the Apple Macintosh computer. This was also the period of time that saw his combined book and documentary, ‘Last Chance To See’, about animals that were at risk of becoming extinct. But it’s the section on ‘Starship Titanic’ which perhaps says the most about Adams’ wayward talent at this time. Envisaged as an interactive video game while written simultaneously as a comic novel, the project proved to be incredibly difficult to do and was ultimately seen as a bit of a failure, a relatively rare thing in Adams’ career.
The final chapter, ‘Après-Vie’, is the post mortem section, focusing largely on how the Hitchhikers universe has been developed since Adams’ death and its enduring legacy among fans of Science Fiction. A substantial set of Appendices contains various other bits of ‘Hitchhikers’ paraphernalia, including a timeline and a generous selection of unpublished material. As is often the case with stuff that didn’t get published or filmed, this material isn’t always the best the writer has ever written but, for fans of the books, getting these extra glimpses into Adams’ imagined universe is rewarding nonetheless.
To summarise then, this is very much a fan’s biography of a popular writer, replete with stories and interviews concerning his literary output rather than private life and nicely illustrated with colour photos.
(pub: Preface/Random House. 471 page illustrated hardback. Price: £20.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-848-09437-6)