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The Salmon of Doubt
Douglas Adams
Macmillan, 299 pages

The Salmon of Doubt
Douglas Adams
Douglas Adams was born in Cambridge in 1952 and educated in Essex before returning to Cambridge to study at St John's College. He worked as a radio and television writer and producer before the publication of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in 1979. The novel went on to sell more than 14 million copies and was followed by the sequels The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life, the Universe and Everything and So Long and Thanks For All the Fish. He married Jane Belson in 1991 and they had a daughter in 1994. He died in May 2001 in Santa Barbara, California, following a heart attack.

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SF Site Review: The Salmon of Doubt

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A review by Jayme Lynn Blaschke

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The Salmon of Doubt is a sad, sad book. That much is obvious from the moment one opens it up -- the large type gives it away. There's padding here. Lots of it. Never mind that every page serves as a reminder that Douglas Adams will write no more, will never again miss deadlines by spectacularly wide margins.

This book was inevitable, however, given the fact Adams was almost a decade late on delivering a novel for which he'd been advanced an obscene amount of money. It's not that I disapprove of posthumous author collections; on the contrary, I often find then fascinating. Essays and letters and the like offer a unique window into the mindset of the author. Unfortunately, The Salmon of Doubt is strikingly schizophrenic, starting with the publisher's not-entirely-honest marketing ploy of subtitling the book "Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time." The showpiece here is an unfinished Dirk Gently novel, and despite Adams' musings about perhaps converting it into a sixth Arthur Dent book, the published fragment is nothing of the sort. Arbitrarily dividing it into sections titled "Life," "The Universe," "And Everything" doesn't do much to clarify the muddle either, despite a rather odd editorial explanation that such an arrangement worked quite well on Adams' website.

But then, I'd expect nothing less from a book that features an Editor's Note, a Prologue, an Introduction and an Epilogue. Surprisingly, there were no Forewords or Afterwords, but this was made up for by the fact that all were set in the aforementioned Really Big Type. If Adams were out to satirize a posthumous work, I'm not convinced he wouldn't come up with something similar.

Like I said, it's a sad book.

What there is of Adams' writings here, however, livens things up considerably. Publication references are frustratingly erratic and sparse which I'm certain will annoy scholars for years, but the articles and letters and interviews open doors into previously unguessed-at aspects of Adams' personality. I had no idea he was such a technogeek, and his unabashed passion for all things Apple was fascinating. His obsession with environmental causes is on full display, and one can't help but be impressed by the earnestness of his convictions which included him hiking up Kilimanjaro in a smelly, sweat-drenched rhinoceros costume to help promote conservation efforts. One of the best examples of his green-minded writing is the 1992 article "Riding the Rays," which is ostensibly about a test-drive comparison between a mechanized "Sub-Bug" and manta rays but is, in fact, a wry travelogue that conveys the importance of preserving unspoiled areas of our planet from the corrupting influences of mankind:

On one occasion I talked to an Australian couple on the beach. I said, "Hello, my name is Douglas, don't you hate the Muzak?" They said they didn't, as a matter of fact. They thought it was very nice and international and sophisticated... They refused to go along with my assertion that it was like having Spam stuffed in your ears all day, and after a while the conversation petered out.
Many of the letter and interviews contained herein focus on Adams' avowed atheism. A self-proclaimed "Radical Atheist," Adams brings the same conviction to his spiritual beliefs (or non-belief) as he does to his other passions:
I really do not believe that there is a god -- in fact I am convinced that there is not a god (a subtle difference). I see not a shred of evidence to suggest that there is one. It's easier to say that I am a radical Atheist, just to signal that I really mean it, have thought about it a great deal, and that it's an opinion I hold seriously.
Such passionate sentiments make the inclusion at the end of the book "The Order of Services for His Memorial" all the more bizarre. Granted, I can think of fewer things more profoundly cool than having David Gilmour performing "Wish You Were Here" at my funeral (unless it's maybe Ray Davies playing "Better Things"), but the inclusion of "Introduction and Opening Prayer" and "Prayers of Thanksgiving" by Stephen Coles, along with blessings by Reverend Anthony Hurst of St. Martin-in-the-Fields somehow ring hollow. Funeral services may be more for the living than the dead, and as such the content of the memorial is all well and good. But I see little point in its inclusion in this book.

But what about Adams' fiction? That's the real reason for this book's existence, right? Right. Fiction dominates the final quarter of the book, including the Monty Pythonesque "The Private Life of Genghis Khan" which isn't too much of a surprise, as it began as a collaboration with the late Graham Chapman. It's amusing, absurd and quirky, clearly showing the influence of both talents and worth a read, if you haven't already done so. Also included is the familiar "Young Zaphod Plays It Safe," which, despite the Hitchhiker setting, is surprisingly unfunny. I find it odd that these could be the only two pieces of short fiction Adams ever completed, but some people are born novelists, others born short fiction writers, and still others (Adams likely among them) born procrastinators.

And procrastination is what likely robbed us poor readers of an excellent, funny novel. Be warned, "The Salmon of Doubt" is a very frustrating read, if only for the reason that its convoluted plot threads will never be resolved. Adams wrote several times that he didn't think "Salmon" worked as a Dirk Gently story, and should be recast as a Hitchhiker book. Sorry, Douglas, but I just don't see it. From Thor's cameo phone call to Dirk's refusing to investigate the disappearance of half a cat, it just doesn't get much more Holistic than this. It's funny. It's baffling. There's a brilliant discourse on the definition of an "Act of God" as it applies under British law. A dog named Kierkegaard. And just when it really gets going, the story ends with Dirk chasing after a three-ton rhinoceros named Desmond in high desert of New Mexico.

Truthfully, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency didn't work for me. Lots of nice bits, to be sure, but they never quite added up. It was almost as if Adams was unsure of himself when it came to writing fiction that didn't boast wacky aliens and hyperspatial bypasses. But The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, on the other hand, worked on every level for me. Sure, the ending was a little rushed and it was muddled a bit here and there, but good old Dirk was at the top of his game. Adams was confident and comfortable with what he was doing. And that's the impression that comes across in "The Salmon of Doubt." The thing reads amazingly well, considering it was cobbled together from three separate drafts of the story. With just a touch of interventional editing -- namely, the disorienting chapters where the narrative abruptly jumps to first-person -- the story would be seamless.

It's sickening. It really is.

As a compilation, The Salmon of Doubt is deeply flawed. As a posthumous memorial, it shows flashes of Adams' unique brilliance. But it is invariably depressing, no matter how many times it makes you laugh. Reading this book, the facts are inescapable: readers everywhere lost a great humorist, the environment lost an eloquent advocate, Jane Belson lost a husband and Polly Adams cruelly lost her daddy at a painfully young age. Truly, a sad, sad book.

Copyright © 2002 Jayme Lynn Blaschke

Jayme Lynn Blaschke graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in journalism. He writes science fiction and fantasy as well as related non-fiction. His website can be found at http://www.exoticdeer.org/jayme.html


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