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What is Counter-Fantasy?

Counter-FantasyCounter-Fantasy: noun – a subgenre of science fiction

There are, as I see it, two major subdivisions of speculative fiction.

There’s science fiction, in which the setting and all (or at least most) of the props and trappings have a basis (albeit sometimes implausibly) in known science. Within the context of the story, the aliens, whiz-bang technology, and special effects are presumed to be scientifically explicable. We may not know how to create warp drive or gravity plates, for example, but if the people of a science-fictional universe figured it out, the story implies that they did so using scientific principles and (importantly) without violating any known laws of physics.

And then, there’s fantasy, in which imagination has free rein to disregard physics, or any other scientific constraint if the author so chooses. In fantasy, mythological creatures, mystical forces, and magic dominate the setting, and their scientific inexplicability (or impossibility) is no detriment to their existence within the story.

This is, of course, a purely academic distinction. It defines different genres of fiction, but individual stories are often a mix of several. Fantasy, romance, sci-fi, adventure, comedy, and mystery can all coexist happily in a single and entirely enjoyable story. Star Wars is one well-known example that mixes both science fiction and fantasy. The setting, with its space ships and blasters, looks like science fiction, but it’s the mystical Force that drives the story.* If you want to attach a genre label to it, ‘science fantasy’ works about as well as any.

But, getting back to reality…I mean fantasy, there is a subgenre sometimes referred to as ‘magic realism’. This may sound like an oxymoron, and I suppose in some ways it is, but stories in this subgenre place magic and supernatural elements in a setting that otherwise feels realistic. Within the story, the characters may regard magic as an ordinary part of everyday life. The distinction between natural and supernatural doesn’t exist. While immersed in the story, the reader is encouraged to suspend disbelief and accept that the magic could exist in the real world.

Counter-fantasy is the reverse of that. The stories are set in worlds that feel like traditional fantasy, but either the magic doesn’t work the way characters in the story think it does, or it is clear to the reader that the magic can only exist within the confines of the fictional fantasy universe. Rather than blur the line between fantasy and reality, it emphasizes it.

The idea for counter-fantasy came to me due to the influence of two great writers, Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. For reasons I could not explain at first, their books seemed different from those by other writers. I enjoyed them more, and it wasn’t simply because of the humor. After several re-readings, the underlying reason finally dawned on me**; they don’t ask me to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. They don’t require that I abandon reason, intellect, or common sense to visit their fictional worlds. It is always clear that their settings are not real and that the reader is not supposed to believe that they could be real. They’re fiction, pure and simple. The stories aren’t to be taken seriously, but, at the same time, they present serious truths beneath the absurdity. They do what traditional fairy tales were intended to do. They provide a clearly fictional example to convey a serious nonfictional point.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a short book about some poor sap named Arthur Dent who hitches a ride with belligerent aliens just as they’re blowing up Earth…but that part of the story is nonsense. The aliens are ridiculous. Their motive of creating a hyperspace bypass is absurd. It’s a surface story, and the reader isn’t supposed to regard it as anything other than that. It is simply an entertaining framework that ties together several observations about humanity, from the soulless momentum of bureaucracy to the human search for meaning in a vast, uncaring universe. Kind of depressing, that, but couched in humor, the point, the ultimate point in the book comes through. Don’t Panic! The universe is what it is, it will do what it does, and if we think we can make much of a difference in that, well, that’s funny.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld fantasy stories make a different point—several in fact***. They don’t laugh at the ultimate absurdity of human action; they stress its importance. Humans choose what they will do and what they will be. This may not matter to the overall fate of the universe, but it matters to individual people and to those around them. Pratchett’s stories address greed, sexism, prejudice, jingoism, religion, belief, tradition…. And they do so in stories featuring witches and wizards. But unlike magic realism, Pratchett isn’t trying to make the setting feel real. After all, the stories take place on a flat world resting on the backs of four huge elephants standing atop a planet-size turtle. This absurdity provides a constant reminder that the surface story is fiction and shouldn’t be regarded as anything else.

Both of these great authors create superbly entertaining stories that readers should not take seriously to convey points that they should. That’s what I saw in them, anyway, and that’s what most impressed me. I have a fairly skeptical nature. I don’t suspend disbelief easily, and both Adams and Pratchett provided meaningful and enjoyable stories that didn’t require me to.

A lot of modern fantasy, and even some science fiction, carries a serious tone that clashes with settings that simply cannot be taken seriously. Basic absurdities are presented as if they are not. It’s as if the author expects the reader not to notice clear violations of the laws of gravity, motion, thermodynamics, or probability. Perhaps I have a hair-trigger BS**** reflex, but things like this tend to ruin the story for me. If the story has a serious tone and I read, for example, that some witch or wizard turned someone into a frog, my immediate reaction is, “Where did all the extra mass go?”*****

The thing is, I like fantasy. I enjoy fairy tales. But a good many of the more recent fantasy stories I’ve read (or began to read and gave up on) seemed to take themselves far too seriously. It was as if the writers forgot the meaning of fantasy. It’s not real.******

So, that’s how I got the idea for counter-fantasy. It’s lighthearted speculative fiction with a fantasy-like feel, but it doesn’t try to make the fantasy elements in the story seem as if they could exist outside of it. It maintains, even emphasizes the lines between natural and supernatural, rational and irrational, and knowledge and belief. This, I hope, allows readers to enjoy the story without triggering their BS reflexes. It’s a bit less immersive, a bit less escapist than some fantasy, but I think it provides a good alternative for readers who like to keep one metaphorical foot grounded in reality even when enjoying a work of speculative fiction.

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Footnotes:
* I’m fairly sure George Lucas intended Star Wars to be a fairy tale with space ships. “A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…” is far too much like the traditional fairy tale beginning (“A Long Time Ago, In a Land Far Away…”) to be a coincidence.
**I can be a terribly slow learner at times.
***With over 40 Discworld books in the series, a lot of points can be made.
**** BS, of course, stands for Balderdash & Stupidity. What else could it possible mean?
*****In Pratchett’s story A Hat Full of Sky, a young witch turns an unlucky fellow into a small frog and Sir Terry wisely notes that the extra mass manifests as a pink blob nearby.
******Sometimes, I also suspect that there must be some kind of competition going on to see who can create the darkest, most depressing, and unenjoyable books possible, but that’s a separate issue.

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2015 Towel Day / Wear the Lilac Day

DNA(B&W)STP(B&W)

The 25th of May celebrates the lives and works of two innovative and inspirational writers, Douglas Noel Adams and Sir Terry Pratchett.

Towel Day came about two weeks after Douglas Adams died unexpectedly of a heart attack on May 11, 2001. He was only 49. The ‘Towel’ in Towel Day, of course, refers to the iconic towel that all intergalactic travelers are advised to carry in his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.*

In 2007, Terry Pratchett was diagnosed with are rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s disease known as Posterior Cortical Atrophy. Wear the Lilac Day began in 2008 with ‘Match It For Pratchett’, an unofficial fan initiative that called on Discworld readers to donate money for Alzheimer’s research and to wear lilacs on May 25th to promote awareness of the disease. The symbol and the date derive from a fictional event in Pratchett’s book Night Watch, which was published in 2002. Sadly, Terry Pratchett died on 12 March 2015 at the age of 66. Wear the Lilac Day now appears to be evolving into a general commemoration of Sir Terry.

Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett have often been compared. Both were British, both wrote humorously meaningful speculative fiction, and both might be described as cynical optimists with strong humanistic outlooks that came through in their fiction. The style and content of their writing, however is quite different. Adams’ has more of an absurdist, laugh out loud, quality. Although Pratchett’s books may also provoke laughs, they tend more toward quite, contemplative smiles and richly constructed settings and characters. Both, however, provide insights into what it means to be human. What humans are. How they behave. How they think.

In Adams’ books, the world happens to people, and they deal with it. His widely acclaimed Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy begins with a normal fellow going about his normal life, concerned about normal things, when, to the surprise of all, Earth is destroyed by aliens creating a hyperspace bypass. What he’s telling us is that, in the cosmic scope of things, our normal concerns are not all that important. This is good to remember. When you find yourself wallowing in personal troubles, step back and get some perspective. At least there isn’t a Vogon constructor fleet in orbit above you threatening the extinction of all life on Earth.

Pratchett does much the same with Discworld, but rather than the world happening to people, people happen to the world. In the cosmic scope of things, we may not be all that important, but what we do matters, at least for a while. Many of his tales are like morality lessons in which the human characters take a stand against sexism (e.g. Equal Rites), prejudice (e.g. Unseen Academicals), dogmatism (e.g. Pyramids and Small Gods), jingoism (e.g. Jingo), slavery and oppression (e.g. Snuff)…. Well, you get the point. He wrote over 40 Discworld stories (and about 30 others), and most of them point to some human foible worthy of examination.

Both writers also clearly maintain a distinction between fantasy and reality. Adams demonstrates this with absurd aliens (e.g. Vogons) and such things as the Infinite Improbability Drive. Pratchett does it by having a flat world that rides on the back of four elephants atop a spacefaring turtle. The settings aren’t intended to be taken as even remotely possible. Their fiction is, well, clearly fiction. You’re not supposed to take story on the surface seriously, although the stuff behind it is a different matter entirely. Don’t be confused by the humor. There is some serious literature going on here, and the obvious lies these authors tell us reveal subtle truths about human nature.**

Both writers have a large and devoted following, with considerable overlap between them. Chances are good that if you like one, you will like the other, which is why I think 25 May is a good day to celebrate both. I admire both of them. Much of who I am and who I am becoming is due to the influence of their writing. Words have power.***

So, for all you hoopy froods out there, Happy Towel Day, and to all Discworld visitors, Happy Wear the Lilac Day. If things are getting you down, don’t panic. Read (or reread) one of their books. They can help make your journeys through life, the universe, and everything more enjoyable.

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Footnotes:
* See my 2012 post In Recognition of Towel Day (link below)
** Personal note: I have a pet peeve with fiction that attempts to portray fantasy settings as ‘realistic’. They’re not. I have a rather incredulous and highly skeptical nature, and, consequently, an aversion to suspend disbelief. In fact, I dislike stories that seem to take themselves too seriously because it feels like intentional deception. Fantasy can, however, highlight and magnify things that are true. Both Adams and Pratchett do this extremely well.
*** “…words can be even more powerful than magic.” Quoted from Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters, a parody of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/169437985

~*~

Related Posts:
Discworld – The Final Sunrise (A Fan-Fic Tribute Mar. 2015) https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2015/03/15/discworld-the-final-sunrise/
A Tribute to Terry Pratchett (Mar. 2015) https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2015/03/13/a-tribute-to-terry-pratchett/
Marvin’s Towel Day Present (A Poem for Towel Day 2014) https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2014/04/25/marvins-towel-day-present/
‘Twas The Night Before Towel Day (A Poem for Towel Day 2013) https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/twas-the-night-before-towel-day/
In Recognition of Towel Day (2012) https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2012/05/17/in-recognition-of-towel-day/

**GNU-Terry Pratchett**

’Twas the Night before Towel Day

VogonsRcoming

’Twas the night before Towel Day. I gazed at the sky.
The Vogons were coming. I started to cry.
I knew why they’d come here ’cause I’d read the Guide.
I reached for my towel. There was nowhere to hide.

HHG-VogonFleetAs humanity huddled asleep in their beds,
Unaware of the doom hanging over their heads,
I ran out my door and then into my car.
Only one thing might stop this scourge from the stars.

Huge yellow ships hovered high in the air
In the way that bricks don’t. ‘This just isn’t fair!’
I raced through stop signs and lights that glowed red.
My goal was only two minutes ahead.

I got to my office block, went to the top,
And there on the roof, I came to a stop.
Above me the largest ship stood quietly poised
Demolition beams ready, and then, there was noise.

“People of Earth,” a growly voice said,VogonOffice
“In two minutes time, you will all be quite dead.
We’re making a bypass and you’re in the way
Is there anything first that you wish to say?”

Now everyone knows that Vogons are dim.
They’re tasteless and vulgar and really quite grim,
Officious and mean, bureaucratically driven,
But they do follow orders in triplicate given.

I waved my towel for all I was worth.
“Constructor Fleet Leader, I speak for the Earth.”
“So speak, little man. Grovel and plead,
But resistance is useless, I will not pay heed.”

“We do not resist,” I said in reply.
“Your orders say kill us. We’re eager to die.
But wasting of effort to us is abhorrent,
As it is to you, or so I should warrant.

HHG-Towels“We’ll spare you the effort of wiping us clean.
We’ll do it for you. You’ll see what I mean.
I am the leader of this bunch of jerks.
If I go, it all goes. That’s how it works.”

Now, to a Vogon, this just might make sense.
Authority rules them. They’re otherwise dense.
They think everything that exists needs a leader.
If the leader is gone, there’s nothing else either.

They’re brighter, I knew, than the beasties of Traal
But not much, I hoped. I could no longer stall.
I pulled forth my towel, and grandly I said,
“Now, I am gone!” It went over my head.

TowelHeadHolding my breath, I hoped they’d believe
Their mission accomplished and then promptly leave.
If they could not see me, they might think me gone.
If I was, then Earth was, though this might be wrong.

I dared not peek from under my towel
Hung over my head as a concealing cowl.
Forty-two seconds passed. I drew a breath,
Proving my fate was not instant death.

The Vogon Commander spoke not a word,
But the whine of ship engines was clearly heard.
Then I heard him complain as his ships disappeared,
“I suppose that makes sense, but it all seems quite weird.”

(Towel day is observed every year on May 25th to celebrate the life and work of Douglas Adams, and especially his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Fans around the world are encouraged to carry a towel with them on this day in his honor. The first Towel Day was held in 2001, two weeks after Adams’ death on May 11. )
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Some Thoughts on The Salmon of Doubt by Douglas Adams

Douglas Adams died in May 2001. He was barely 49 years old. I read all of his published novels up until then, but I never read The Salmon of Doubt until now. It was published the year after his death, and it presents a collection of his writings including chapters from an uncompleted and largely neglected manuscript that he originally intended to be the third Dirk Gently novel, although he had been toying with the idea of rewriting it as another Hitchhiker’s Guide story.

The reason I think I avoided reading it was that the story would never be finished. The world would never see another Douglas Adams novel, and this, I thought, was too sad to think about. So I didn’t. I suppose I was doing the emotional equivalent of throwing a towel over my head, hoping that if I didn’t acknowledge this disturbing thought, it would go away.

I recall a conversation I had with a coworker in 1999. He was a smart young man, well read, but with what I considered a distorted view of the universe. He was a philosophical adherent of the strong anthropic principle, claiming that this provided evidence of a purposeful universe. My own perspective on the issue was more like the one Adams relates in his puddle analogy.

Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!” This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.

On one occasion, our conversation turned to novels, and I asked him what he thought was the best novel ever written in the English language. He mentioned a few candidates from classic literature. I smiled and shook my head.

“You don’t agree?” he said.

“Nope.”

“What would you say, then?”

“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” I replied.

He laughed, obviously thinking I was making a joke. He was wrong.

The reason I think The Hitchhiker’s Guide ranks among the best, is that it shakes our complacency about our place in the universe. It takes us, collectively and individually, out of the center, much as Copernicus and Galileo did when they wrote that Earth was, well, not the center of the universe. Adams was more subtle and far more entertaining about it, though, and brought the idea to us not from a scientific or philosophical perspective, but from that of a normal guy, Arthur Dent. He might be the last human in the universe, and, you know what? The universe doesn’t care. It’s not here because of us.

This may seem irrelevant, but it has much to do with Adams and his view of the world, which is really the focus of The Salmon of Doubt. If I were forced to place it in a category, I’d have to call it a biography, although the final twenty-five percent or so is an unfinished novel. The prologue (written before Adams’ death) and the introduction (written after) are certainly biographical. Much of the first section, aptly named “Life,” is autobiographical. The second section, “The Universe,” includes entertaining articles Adams wrote for various publications, selections from interviews, and other bits and pieces. Together, the first two sections provide a good look at this quirky genius. Here are a few highlights:

  • Work habits – A procrastinator
  • Approach toward writing – He found it slow and difficult
  • Attitude toward technology – Fond of gadgets and gizmos and loved his Apple computers
  • Religion – Atheist (He didn’t seem to consider this a matter of belief so much as a conclusion that theism wasn’t a rational hypothesis.)
  • Favorite alcoholic drink – Whisky (although he was also fond of a properly prepared cup of Earl Grey tea)
  • Music – Favorites included the Beatles, Bach, Procol Harum, and Pink Floyd
  • Hobbies – Scuba diving
  • Interests – Science, Technology, Rhinoceroses
  • Favorite kind of food – Japanese
  • Favorite authors – P.G. Wodehouse, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Kurt Vonnegut, Ruth Rendell
  • The book that changed his life – The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins (with whom he became good friends)

The last section of the book, “And Everything,” includes two short stories, The Private Life of Genghis Khan, and Young Zaphod Plays it Safe. Both are fun. It also includes eleven chapters compiled from three different versions of his uncompleted novel, The Salmon of Doubt. As presented here, this is a sequel to The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. I enjoyed it. Dirk Gently is back, and he has a mysterious client, but he has no idea what he’s being paid to do or who is paying him so well to do it. Unfortunately, we never find out, although I have my suspicions. It brings back Kate, who now seems to be cohabiting with Thor, and it answers the question I had about the eagle from Teatime. I’m glad to have that resolved.

I never met Douglas Adams and obviously, I never will. After reading this book, though, I feel I know him a little. I know I owe him a lot, not just for the books I spent many hours reading and laughing through, but also because he was one of the writers who inspired me most to write my own stories. I wish I could thank him for that, or blame him. I would love to able to talk with him and ask him how he made it look so easy when it is really so hard. Mostly I would just like to have him back to let him know I appreciate what he did. I wouldn’t even badger him to write more stories.

Okay, that last bit is probably a lie.

Related Posts:
Book Review – The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
Book Review – Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
Book Review – Shada

In Recognition of Towel Day
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Book Review – The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams

After rereading Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, I had to reread the sequel. It had been so long since I last read it, that it was almost as if I was reading it for the first time.

In this, the second and final completed Dirk Gently novel, the holistic detective has finally found a client capable of paying him in a manner to which he would like to become accustomed. Unfortunately, it’s a short-term arrangement as the client dies before we meet him around page 30. Dirk feels obligated to investigate, well, maybe not exactly obligated, but he is curious and ends up being thrown into a twisted interaction between gods, an innocent bystander, and a not so innocent entertainment lawyer.

Thor, the Norse god of thunder (and other things) is peeved. The gods are losing power and he thinks it’s because his father, Odin, has sold his soul (and all is powers) for a chance to be in a TV commercial and then to retire in a nice, quite room with fresh linen. Thor is trying to get back to Norway to confront him but has trouble at the airport due to lack of a ticket and a lack of money with which to buy one. The aforementioned innocent bystander, one Kate Schechter, stuck in line behind him, buys his ticket, for which he is grateful. He is still denied a seat because he also lacks a passport. Understandably, he is frustrated. His rage explodes, literally, and the ticket counter shoots through the roof in a burst of flame and the girl working at it is transformed into a Coke machine. This may have been accidental.

When Kate awakens in a hospital, she recognizes the unconscious man in the next room as the one who lacked a passport. She believes he is dead. A nurse assures her he’s not, but when she finds him gone shortly thereafter, she wonders where he went. This brings her to a sanitarium known as Woodshead, where Odin is enjoying a calm retirement.

Dirk Gently’s investigation of his former client’s untimely and messy death also leads him to Woodshead, and it is not far from there where Kate and Dirk meet. He tells her she’s in danger.

From here, the book almost seems to rush to the conclusion and I do wish it did not. My hard cover, book club edition is only 211 pages, and it is so enjoyable, I would have wished for it to be twice that length. There is enough untold story in the gaps to justify it. Kate and Dirk pretty much act separately, each pursuing their own thread of the story. I would have liked to see more interaction between them. There isn’t much about the lawyer and I would have liked to dislike him more. I never did quite figure out what all the eagles were about, but I’m not really up on Norse mythology so I may have missed out because of that. Also, I was unclear about what brought about the creation of the new and powerful god of guilt (from Dirk’s neglected refrigerator). Still, the central plot is clear and the conclusion makes sense, after a fashion.

The Dirk Gently stories had the makings of a great series and it is sad that Douglas Adams did not have a chance to continue it. But, the two that were finished are fun, and I do recommend them.

Book Review – Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

The cast of delightful characters in this book includes a software developer, a forgetful time traveler, an electric monk, a couple of ghosts (one used to be human), and a ‘holistic detective’ who claims he isn’t psychic. It also includes several smiles and a place or two where laughing out loud is required.

I pulled my old first paperback edition off my shelves a couple days ago (noting the whopping $4.50 cover price) because I just finished reading Shada by Gareth Roberts, which was a novelization for an unaired script written by Douglas Adams for the Doctor Who TV series. Something about Shada reminded me of this book. And it should have. Professor Chronotis, appears in both. In Shada, he is clearly an absentminded Time Lord. In Dirk Gently’s Holistics Detective Agency, he still is — except the term ‘Time Lord’ isn’t used because this is not a Doctor Who story. Although it is, except it does not include the Doctor, so it really isn’t. In a way, it could be seen as a sequel to Shada with Professor Chronotis as the common character between them. Rereading this novel after Shada, provided answers to questions I had before, like who Chronotis is, where he got his time machine (now obviously a TARDIS), why he has lived so long, and what it was he enigmatically retired from before taking his post at Cambridge.

There are still a couple of things that leave me scratching my head — like what exactly did they do to stop the alien ghost from altering the course of Earth history? My only complaint about the novel is that there isn’t more of it. I would have loved to see some of the scenes expanded, especially a bit more on the ‘electric monk’ and the scenes where Chronotis, Richard, and Dirk are travelling in the time machine not called a TARDIS, exploring the alien ghost’s ancient spaceship, and bringing him back in time to ‘correct’ his mistake. (I know that all may seem confusing, but I try not to put plot spoilers in these pseudo reviews.)

So, my recommendation for people who have previously read this book is to reread it after reading Shada. If you haven’t read this book, read Shada first, then this one, and then read The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. That’s what I plan to do tonight.

(My recommendations presume some familiarity with Doctor Who. If you are not familiar with Doctor Who, you have much catching up to do.)

Related Posts:
Book Review of Shada by Gareth Roberts
The Unique Perspective of Doctor Who

Book Review – Shada by Gareth Roberts (and Douglas Adams)

The Lost Doctor Who Adventure by Douglas Adams

The fourth Doctor, Romana, and K-9 answer a call from Chronotis, an aging and befuddled Time Lord, who is living out his retirement as a Cambridge professor. Unfortunately, Chronotis has forgotten why he called, although it soon becomes clear that it is for the Doctor to save the universe (again).

This time, the threat comes from Skagra, an overly ambitious fellow from the vacation planet of Dronid. He wants to be God, or the closest thing possible. To achieve this goal, he needs to absorb the mind of the legendary Gallifreyan criminal Salyavin who had the ability to replace or augment the minds of others with own. Salyavin, though, was reportedly placed in stasis and imprisoned thousands of years ago on the now lost and forgotten prison planet of Shada. The key to finding Shada is the book The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey, which Professor Chronotis stole from the Time Lords’ archives and subsequently misplaced.

Got it? Good. Because that’s about as much of the plot as I’m going to try to summarize.

The story was originally written as a TV script by Douglas Adams, the late, great author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galxay, and novelized by Gareth Roberts, a writer of other Doctor Who novels and TV scripts.

To me, the beginning sounds like Adams. See if you don’t agree.

 ‘At the age of five, Skagra decided emphatically that God did not exist. This revelation tends to make most people in the universe who have it react in one of two ways — with relief or with despair. Only Skagra responded to it by thinking, Wait a second. That means there’s a situation vacant.’

 Now I don’t know if Adams came up with this opening or if Roberts did, but it has a lot of Douglas Adams’ irreverent wit and whimsy. And so does the rest of the book. Now, I won’t say it reads exactly like a Douglas Adams book because it doesn’t. There are bits that do, probably because Adams wrote them as part of the script, but in other parts, the imagination is noticeably more constrained. It’s still quite good, enjoyable, and it hangs together very well. The melding of Roberts and Adams is virtually seamless.

The portrayal of the Doctor is exceptional, often sounding more like the later Doctors from the new series than the fourth Doctor from the 1970s/1980s. I don’t consider this a bad thing. (Don’t get me wrong, all of the Doctors were fun, but the new series has more polish.)

There was a certain element of nostalgia for me reading a ‘new’ Doctor Who adventure set in the 1980s featuring the Doctor’s campy, robot dog, K-9. I enjoyed it very much. I would recommend this book to all fans of Douglas Adams and Doctor Who. If you are not a fan, what’s wrong with you?

Now, for a bit of background – Douglas Adams wrote the original Shada script for the final six-episode serial of the 1979-80 Doctor Who TV series. Filming was never completed due to a strike at the BBC. The bits that were filmed were eventually combined and released in 1992 as a 111 minute VHS tape, with Tom Baker, the fourth doctor, adding narrative to link it all together. You can see it on YouTube, although I warn you, it’s pretty rough and was never aired on television.

In Recognition of Towel Day

A picture of my Towel

There are other holidays and commemorations, but none is as important, significant, popular, meaningful

Let’s start again.

Towel Day 2012 will be widely celebrated, observed, recognized

Fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will recognize this book’s immense contribution, significance, importance

 

……

……….?

Okay. Towel Day is fairly obscure, if you are judging it based on reality, but, as Douglas Adams reminds us in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, “reality is frequently inaccurate.” (I’ll get back to that.) The point is that Friday, May 25, 2012 is Towel Day, a commemoration of the life and work of Douglas Adams, and especially of his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The first Towel Day was held in 2001, two weeks after Adams’ death on May 11. Fans around the world are encouraged to carry a towel with them on May 25th of each year in his honor.

Why a towel? Well, if you are acquainted with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you know. If not, here is what it says (in Chapter 3) about towels.

“A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have “lost.” What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.” (Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.)”

Another picture of my Towel

Now you know what the Guide says about towels. You can ignore the rest of this because I’m about to get philosophical and impart symbolic meaning to things Adams may not have intended. Yeah, the symbol is the towel and it relates a bit to the quote about reality being inaccurate. I think he’s right — sort of — in a way. It’s not because there is no objective reality. I’m fairly certain there is, it’s just that I don’t think many people actually live there. People wrap a towel of subjectivity around themselves and interpret reality through it. They see things that are not really there (like I’m seeing the symbolism of the towel) and ignore things that are, sure that if they don’t see them, they can’t cause any harm, rather like the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal. Adams may be pointing out how people filter their perceptions to create personal subjective realities, and I think one of the themes of the book is that we can take these subjective realities far too seriously. Using humor and absurdity, he helps us realize that our beliefs are choices, our perceptions are subjective, and our fears and problems are often simply a matter of how we look at things. Sometimes, our subjective interpretation makes problems of things that don’t need to be, or at least make them seem larger. Shifting perspective may be all that is needed to eliminate a problem, or at least make us feel better about it.

On the other hand, I’m probably taking all of this far too seriously, and one thing I think Adams would caution against is taking anything too seriously, especially his books. So, with that in mind, let me just wish a Happy Towel Day to all you hoopy froods. I hope you remember where your towel is, and, whatever you do, Don’t Panic!

 

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