One cold May morning in June

Ken, in comments at B&T:

I find Douglas Adams’ comic writing deeply melancholic to the point of being depressing, and Terry Pratchett’s quite the opposite. I suspect the difference has to do with the sense of underlying logic in Pratchett, versus the sense of arbitrariness and absurdity in Adams. I get the same sense of arbitrariness in what I’ve looked at of Sharpe, and I didn’t like it at all. Same with (closer to home) Robert Rankin.

Jasper Fforde, that’s what I say. But I’ll get back to that.

I tend to agree with Ken about Adams & Pratchett. The thing about Hitchhiker is that it makes perfect sense as a Cambridge revue sketch, i.e. something whose writer is trying to flatter and stay one jump ahead of a clever but cynical audience: hence the wordiness, the displays of erudition and worldly-wisdom, the dash for the next gag. But I think the darkness which is overpowering by the time of Mostly Harmless was always there, and I suspect that it’s related. One of the few snatches of HH I caught on the radio, back in 1978, was the digression about the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Complaints division (“the only part of the Corporation to show a consistent profit in recent years”) and how its giant illuminated motto – “Share and Enjoy” – unfortunately now appeared to read “Go stick your head in a pig”. The explanation was followed by a hideously atonal vocodered jingle, beginning “Share and enjoy” and ending (of course) “Go stick your head in a pig”. A basically rather grim idea is taken further and further, with an odd kind of doggedness, culminating in a deliberately unpleasant jingle – which itself goes on just a bit too long to be amusing. It’s strange and rather gruelling stuff; I remember thinking at the time that this wasn’t exactly light entertainment. (You can hear for yourself. Share and enjoy!) And that’s not to mention Slartibartfast’s melancholia –

Slartibartfast: Perhaps I’m old and tired, but I think that the chances of finding out what’s actually going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say, “Hang the sense of it,” and keep yourself busy. I’d much rather be happy than right any day.
Arthur Dent: And are you?
Slartibartfast: Ah, no… Well, that’s where it all falls down, of course.

or the appallingly dark comedy of the basic setup: the Earth has been destroyed and nobody cares. If you were going to take it really seriously, you could say that Marvin’s function is to make Arthur’s predicament even more desperate, by effectively blocking off the escape route of outright depression. Arthur is a thin character – one of those Boring Ordinary People who the Pythons kept returning to, upwardly-mobile Oxbridge snobs that they were – stuck in a mindbendingly ‘thick’ situation, and doomed to make jokes about it. Which nobody hears.

Adams: dark. I think the darkness and the “sense of arbitrariness and absurdity” Ken refers to may go back to the same root. I wonder if, for Adams when he was writing Hitchhiker, the cynicism and erudition and wordplay was basically all there was – not in the sense that it was all he could do (we should all be so limited), but in the sense that he didn’t believe there was anything else that mattered. Bear in mind that he was only in his mid-20s when Hitchhiker went out – still very much in the “after Cambridge” stage. Being erudite and good with words is quite a big deal if you’re a student, and can have real rewards. Get to Oxford or Cambridge, and it’s easy to form a world-view which basically says that clever people get privilege, very clever people get lots of privilege and really clever people run the world. Coming down from Cambridge (in more ways than one), to discover that boring ordinary people in boring ordinary jobs were doing quite nicely thankyou, while clever people like oneself were scraping around to make ends meet… well, I found it a bit of a shock myself, and I wasn’t even a star at Cambridge. The world of Megadodo Publications and the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation is a world where knowledge and intelligence confer power, but only on people who are willing to misuse them. To some extent that mentality seems to have stuck, for Adams – there’s a cold wind blowing through a lot of his later work, from Mostly Harmless to The long dark tea-time of the soul: a mood not just of “this is all there is” but of “yes, this is all there is, you don’t have to keep asking”. You can see how he would have taken to rationalism and Darwinism – which, to be fair, do seem to have given him a sense that there was a there there, and consequently cheered him up a bit. (This theory doesn’t really account for Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, one of his best works & also one of the most upbeat. Maybe he should have written more about music.)

It follows from all of the above that Adams was never a world-builder; I think he felt that the world we had was an absurd and rather shoddy mess which didn’t bear too much investigating, and any other worlds we visited would almost certainly be no better. He makes an odd sort of mirror image to C.S. Lewis in this respect. Narnia doesn’t hang together for five minutes – did Talking Foxes eat Talking Mice, and if not what did they live on? could Talking and non-Talking animals interbreed, and if so what would the offspring be? where are the female Marsh-wiggles, or the female Centaurs? and what the hell is Father Christmas doing there? But it doesn’t matter (and be fair, when you’re reading the story it doesn’t matter) because Lewis wasn’t greatly concerned about how this world hung together either. (He didn’t much care where the female Humans were for most of his life.) The only world that made sense, for Lewis, was Aslan’s Country; Earth or Narnia, they were all dim and muddled reflections, seen δι εσοπτρου εν αινιγματι. But the senseless and disordered worlds he imagined were still basically, ultimately, good and trustworthy places, because they were underwritten by that great unknowable original – just as Adams’s (a) weren’t and (b) weren’t.

Pratchett – who started out as a working journalist – took a very different approach when he started writing the Discworld series, and in retrospect it’s rather an extraordinary one. Pratchett designed a world which feels from the outset as if it ought to hang together (there’s work and crime and government and sex), but couldn’t possibly work: in the first few books there are huge white spaces in the mental map of Discworld, quite openly labelled “and then a miracle happens”. It’s a fantasy, after all; it’s a world where magic happens all the time. One of the remarkable features of the later books has been the way those white spaces have been progressively filled in: magic itself has been less and less of a deus ex machina and more of a source of power, like steam. Pratchett has a real sense of people living in society, and of society as an essentially orderly and comprehensible human creation – even if (as he suggests sometimes) the order rests ultimately on random violence, and comprehending society would involve learning things you’d rather forget. I’ve got a lot of time for the argument, advanced in Interzone at around the time of Guards! Guards!, that Pratchett is a writer of comedy in the fullest and most philosophical sense – comedy as a place where nobody gets hurt (except bad people) and the estranged lovers end up together again (usually), but where some real and serious ideas get played with along the way.

I’m interested in Ken’s other comments. I don’t like Tom Sharpe as a writer, any more than I like Howard Jacobson – Sharpe has a similar sort of thumping smugness, although he carries it off more lightly – but I’m intrigued by the comment about Robert Rankin. I’ve never read any of his stuff (although I do remember when it was actually happening) and I’d be interested to know where other people locate him on the Pratchett-Adams continuum (or should that be Lewis-Pratchett-Adams?).

Another couple of names for you. I like Malcolm Pryce. I’m not convinced his world hangs together, but it feels more solid than a simple burlesque; it’s authentically Welsh enough to seem believable (or maybe it’s just that I’m Welsh enough to find it believable). I’ve got an absolute tin ear for Jasper Fforde, though, and here again it’s something to do with arbitrariness: he really does seem to be making things up as he goes along, without even addressing the question of whether it hangs together. Time travel I like; the ‘banana’ scene in The Eyre Affair is tremendous. People entering books I like, and have done since Woody Allen came up with the idea in “The Kugelmass Episode”. But time travel and people entering books and an alt-historical authoritarian government and a literary popular culture… too much. Most of the way through The Eyre Affair I was convinced that we were going to find out how this world connected to, or diverged from, our own – that Fforde was going to reveal the Point of Departure – but it wasn’t to be. Maybe my expectations were the problem – maybe I should have relaxed and enjoyed the firework display – but it didn’t work for me.

What (and who) am I missing?


  1. Posted 17 March 2011 at 14:57 | Permalink | Reply

    There’s a section in Michael Bywater’s Lost Worlds where he talks about almost being a car crash with Adams. When it looks like they’re about to crash, Adams said ‘oh well, it’s been a good life’ but straight after when they’re safe, his comment was ‘actually, it hasn’t been’ which fits with the general melancholia in his work mentioned above.

    As for Rankin, I read the Apocalypse trilogy years ago and found them amusing in the way things like that are when you’re in your late teens or early twenties. I suspect they wouldn’t seem anything like as amusing now.

    • Phil
      Posted 23 March 2011 at 09:39 | Permalink | Reply

      From Wikipedia, but with very H2G2 phrasing:

      In the 2005 movie The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Guide has an entry on what to do if you face certain, unavoidable death at the claws of a Bugblatter Beast: the same method for “What to do if you find yourself trapped beneath a large boulder with no means of escape” from fit the eighth of the radio series. The entry is this: “Consider how lucky you are that life has been good to you so far. Alternatively, if life hasn’t been good to you so far, which given your current circumstances seems more likely, consider how lucky you are that it won’t be troubling you much longer.”

      • Posted 24 March 2011 at 22:29 | Permalink

        I walked out of that movie after about half an hour, not having laughed once.

        The radio series, by the way, I actually listened to with a radio under the sheets after going to bed as a kid.

      • Danika
        Posted 28 March 2011 at 05:26 | Permalink

        That comment is in the original radio play too.

  2. Posted 17 March 2011 at 15:23 | Permalink | Reply

    Rankin’s first four books (the Brentford trilogy and the Sprouts of Wrath) are his best by far, but are a little tired on re-reading. His later stuff ranges from bad to terrible. Robert Sheckley’s “Dimension of Miracles” is a clear influence on Adams, and has some of the same flavour. But for my money, the best person in this line by far these days is the horribly underappreciated William Browning Spencer. Get “Zod Wallop” or “Resume with Monsters” (dead-end jobs, the ideological trappings of capitalism and the Cthulhu mythos all rolled up into one, very funny package).

  3. Posted 17 March 2011 at 20:41 | Permalink | Reply

    Wow! Ask and it shall be given, indeed. Colour me impressed.

  4. Claire
    Posted 17 March 2011 at 21:04 | Permalink | Reply

    I’m quite fond of Fforde’s books in general, but if it’s rules that make things work for you, Shades of Grey seems to be more grounded—everything appears to be even more crazy and arbitrary as in the Thursday Next books at the start, but as we go along we learn that there are explanations for most everything, and even a Big Secret whose ramifications aren’t fully explored in this book, which ends with a promise of another.

  5. Richard J
    Posted 18 March 2011 at 13:00 | Permalink | Reply

    There’s a section in Michael Bywater’s Lost Worlds where he talks about almost being a car crash with Adams

    There was an even more interesting article by Michael Bywater in Prospect a year or two back giving an interesting insight into why exactly Mostly Harmless had such a bleak tone different from the other books. Ahah. The meat of it is in the free preview.

    • Phil
      Posted 18 March 2011 at 13:24 | Permalink | Reply

      Because (a) Adams hated the whole thing by then and (b) the book is actually by Michael Bywater? That would explain a lot.

      Interesting to see his comments, or rather ostentatious non-comments, on the Eoin Colfer sequel And another thing. One of the things that doomed AAT (as I said here) was that Colfer seems to have been a completely indiscriminate Hitchhiker fan, who loved the last two books just as much as the first two, & designed his follow-up accordingly.

  6. mds
    Posted 18 March 2011 at 18:13 | Permalink | Reply

    “… did Talking Foxes eat Talking Mice, and if not what did they live on?

    Non-talking mice, obviously. Only the mice who chewed the ropes off of Aslan on the Stone Table and their descendants became Talking Mice. Which just pushes everything back a notch, since why were there both talking and non-talking animals in Narnia to begin with? Presumably, so there would be not-fully-sentient animals for consumption, just as in our world. Et voilà.

    Ah, useless internet pedantry. My life would be so empty without you.

  7. Posted 19 March 2011 at 10:46 | Permalink | Reply

    I’d just like to applaud the use of Greek in this post.

    • Phil
      Posted 23 March 2011 at 09:32 | Permalink | Reply

      Ta. I was torn between using “through a glass darkly” (familiar but misleading) and something like the New English Bible’s “puzzling reflections in a mirror” (clear but clunky), so I thought I’d let the Greek do the work. It looks nice too. I suppose it’s a bit elitist, but anyone who worries about audience probably shouldn’t be blogging.

  8. Posted 23 March 2011 at 12:00 | Permalink | Reply

    A forest was discovered recently in which most of the trees grew ratchet screwdrivers as fruit. The life cycle of ratchet screwdriver fruit it quite interesting. Once picked it needs a dark dusty drawer in which it can lie undisturbed for years. Then one night it suddenly hatches, discards its outer skin which crumbles into dust, and emerges as a totally unidentifiable little metal object with flanges at both ends and a sort of ridge and a sort of hole for a screw. This, when found, will get thrown away. No one knows what it is supposed to gain from this. Nature, in her infinite wisdom, is presumably working on it.

    I think you could be right about post-Cambridge disaffection. Someone (can’t remember who but, well – it wasn’t me) noted that one can trace the evolution of his life through the books. Hitchhiker contains a lot of jokes about bad pubs and its successors have a lot of cracks about bad restaurants.

  9. Posted 24 March 2011 at 05:51 | Permalink | Reply

    For Adams, I think the premise is in real life there aren’t super heroes but people, like those who sit in committees to overdesign things that don’t work. I find solace in Adams for understanding this. His question is what would happen if a bunch of ‘galactic dilletantes’ were all that was left to save the universe, with no special skills, and in fact no real skills except sandwich making and access to a credit card? All his creative endeavours answer this – even Mostly Harmless. Adams answer is people who care are everywhere, but people with real passion to actually do the doing part in the caring are special and unique and need to be protected, much like the animals and birds the people in Mostly Harmless were protecting.
    I think the crew of Red Dwarf owe something to Hitch Hikers too. Not everyone/thing who survives is perfect or even deserving. The universe to some casual observers is random and can be cruel. But those survivors can be entertaining and they may end up being important.

  10. Posted 24 March 2011 at 05:54 | Permalink | Reply

    I couldn’t agree less with the OP. Adams is much funnier than Pratchett precisely because there is an edge to his humour. It’s cynical, but that’s his schtick. Reading a Discworld novel, the author’s delight in his own cleverness is off-putting – like one of those people who laugh so hard at their own jokes that one does not feel like joining them. And as for the shabby construction of Narnia, it _does_ matter; it makes the smug moralising narrator even less palatable.

    • Posted 27 October 2011 at 17:59 | Permalink | Reply

      A few days before Phil posted this thread as a link on Blood and Treasure I happened to read the first few pages of The Silver Chair (just as a chef will tend to sample his own food, the children’s bookseller will tend to sample his own books) and the desire to tell CS Lewis where to get off was only barely suppressed by the fact of his being dead.

  11. skidmarx
    Posted 1 April 2011 at 10:53 | Permalink | Reply

    I’m tempted to seek a middle way between the last and the post. There are some Discworld books that are a pain to grind through, though the first couple might be described as being informed by the sense of arbitrariness and absurdity you might expect from a former nuclear power station press officer. Who later coins the epigram “Give a man a fire and he’s warm for a day, set him on fire and he’s warm for the rest of his life”. What I read about Adams once was that he was an enormous admirer of traditional SF and his writing can be seen as an attempt to reach the same place that falls short because he’s not quite so natural at the science.

    I liked Rankin’s “Nostradamus Ate My Hamster”, though might agree that he likely has never seen a Deus ex Machina he didn’t like.

3 Trackbacks

  1. […] not to be read if you’re squeamish, easily offended or are about to eat Chinese food. One cold may morning in June – Phil Edwards on the difference between Adams and Pratchett. Ireland and Doctor Who – […]

  2. […] for the English: cynical, aloof and, of course, immensely suspicious of French philosophers. A terrific post by Phil at the Gaping Silence reminded me of this idea and made me realise the Bible of Blithe […]

  3. By For a Link I Tarry | Martin’s Booklog on 28 March 2011 at 09:51

    […] On the differences and relative merits of Pratchett and Adams “It follows from all of the above that Adams was never a world-builder; I think he felt that the world we had was an absurd and rather shoddy mess which didn’t bear too much investigating, and any other worlds we visited would almost certainly be no better.” […]

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