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Douglas Adams is best known, and rightly so, for his hilarious Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books (and radio serial and tv series).  But after a while, the succeeding entries in the series (and in the Dirk Gently series) have a certain sameness.  It's not that they aren't funny, more that the unvarying tone and the set up of the jokes becomes, if not tedious, at least repetitive.  In 1988, however, Adams took his same skeptical view of existence on the road and went in search of some of the most endangered species on Earth and the resulting account of his adventures is fresh and very funny.

Adams and his "coauthor" (in a similar position someone once said, there is nothing more junior than being George Steinbrenner's junior partner), Mark Carwardine, who is a zoologist, traveled to Zaire to find the white rhino, to Indonesia looking for the giant Komodo lizard, New Zealand to see the kakapo (a nearly extinct bird), and so on.  The actual travelogue is filled with humorous incidents and Adam's wry observations.  From a trek with a freelance Kakapo tracker, to spending twenty hours at sea with a goat that's been dead for three days--the Komodos like them that way--to a flight with a Zairean pilot who leads passengers and crew in a prayer including the words "we commend our lives into thy hands Oh Lord," there is ample opportunity for a skilled humorist and Douglas certainly is that.

His discussion of environmental, ecological and ethical issues however is disturbingly politically correct; he is unable or unwilling to unleash his sarcasm on the received wisdom of the Green crowd.  So here he is on the topic of Gorillas and Language:

    Why [try to teach apes language]? There are many members of our own species who live in and
    with the forest and know it and understand it. We don't listen to them. What is there to suggest we
    would listen to anything an ape could tell us? Or that he would be able to tell us of his life in a
    language that hasn't been born of that life?... Maybe it is not that they have yet to gain a language,
    it is that we have lost one.

It's so treacly it makes your molars hurt--we don't listen to the forest people, we wouldn't understand the gorillas and perhaps we don't deserve the wisdom they could share.  C'mon.  Prattlings like this, which are mercifully few, cry out for a humorist of his rank, perhaps P.J. O'Rourke, to respond.  One of the dangers of the form of relentless irony that characterizes Adams' writing is that you need to be ready to apply it to yourself as well.  It's sort of disorienting to go along with him as he essentially pokes fun at the entire Third World and then suddenly have him present these bourgeois envirocommunist platitudes with a straight face.

The broader issue implicated by the book is actually pretty interesting.  If we accept his figures, there are about 1.4 recognized million species and an estimated 30 million more still to be discovered.  We all know about the poster child extinctions--dodo birds, carrier pigeons, etc.--and entire species disappear every day, whether we notice or not.  The question arises: so what?  Dodo birds look cute enough, but how is the quality of our lives effected by their disappearance?  Rhinos are pretty cool looking but I'm never going to see one in person, what do I care if all that's left of them is the photographic evidence and written record which are already my sole experience of these beasts?  Adams offers up the typical twaddle about biodiversity, the ecosphere, the interconnectedness of life and all that jazz, but what about the extinctions we had nothing to do with, like the dinosaurs?  Obviously, even before we attained the power to cause mass extinctions they were occurring.  Why should we try to stop them now?  And if they are a natural occurrence, is it right for us to try to reverse the process.  Moreover, if you accept Darwin's theory of natural selection, hasn't mankind been selected?  If we want to open a chain of Kentucky Fried Kakapo restaurants, aren't we simply fulfilling nature's plan?

As I said, the book is very enjoyable and I strongly recommend it.  But the politics are just unexamined rubbish and because they are presented as gospel truths, are out of tune with the joyfully acidic tone of the rest of the book.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -EXCERPT: Douglas Adams & Mark Carwardine: an Excerpt from Last Change to See
    -Obituary - Peter Jones (Douglas Adams, BBC)
    -OBIT : Author Douglas Adams dies (BBC)
    -OBIT : Douglas Adams, Author of 'Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy,' Dies at 49 (Associated Press)
    -OBIT : Author Douglas Adams dies at 49  (Nicholas Hellen and John Harlow, Sunday Times of London)
    -OBIT : Hitch Hiker's Guide author Douglas Adams dies aged 49 (Andrew Alderson and Daniel Foggo, Daily Telegraph)
    -OBIT : Author wrote Hitchhiker's Guide : Douglas Adams, whose cult science fiction comedy The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy drew  millions of fans and spawned a mini-industry, has died at age 49. (May 14, 2001, National Post)
    -TRIBUTE : 'He'll be remembered as someone who created a complete other world' (Stephen Fry, Guardian Unlimited)
    -TRIBUTE : LAMENT FOR DOUGLAS (Richard Dawkins,  [5.14.01], Edge)
    -TRIBUTE : Adams, the universal tourist with a classic in his luggage (Nicholas Hellen, Media Editor, Sunday Times of London)
    -TRIBUTE : So Long And Thanks For All The Fish (Helen Stringer, Media Dome)
    -TRIBUTE : So long, Douglas Adams, and thanks for all the fun The author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" was a geek's geek. The Net will miss him (David Cassel, Salon)
    -ARTICLE : Douglas Adams Pans Wireless Technologies  (David Cassel, MBizCentral,  04/23/01)
    -Earth Edition of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which we call h2g2 for short
    -BBC Online - Science - Douglas Adams
    -Douglas Adams - a science fiction writer?
    -Douglas Adams (Science Fiction and Fantasy)
    -Don't Panic (Links)
    -LINKS: Articles and Reviews: News media printed on the Internet (Floor 42)
    -PROFILE : Planet of the japes : Douglas Adams's first novel was an instant bestseller. Now dogged by writer's block, he has turned to new projects (Nicholas Wroe, ZA@Play)
    -REVIEW: of Last Chance to See IN SHORT: NONFICTION (BETH LEVINE, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEWS: of Last Chance to See (Epinions)
    -REVIEW: of The Hitch Hiker s Guide to the Galaxy  by Douglas Adams (
    -REVIEW:  Douglas Adams "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (Mostly Fiction)
    -REVIEW: of Hitchikers Guide (Jon Blackstock, Suite 101)
    -REVIEW: of THE LONG DARK TEA-TIME OF THE SOUL By Douglas Adams (Cathleen Schine, NY Times Book Review)

    -Language in Apes: How Much Do They Know and How Much Should We Teach Them


My website Another Chance To See attempts to bring the story up-to-date.

- Gareth

- Nov-29-2005, 21:43