Sunday, May 27, 2012

After Adams


'I've read The Sirens of Titan six times now, and it gets better every time. He is an influence, I must own up. Sirens of Titan is just one of those books – you read it through the first time and you think it's very loosely, casually written. You think the fact that everything suddenly makes such good sense at the end is almost accidental. And then you read it a few more times, simultaneously finding out more about writing yourself, and you realise what an absolute tour de force it was, making something as beautifully honed as that appear so casual.'

The above is from an interview that I read on the Darker Matter site. It's a surprisingly detailed interview with Douglas Adams which, I think, goes some way to justifying my last post about the ineptitude of One Last Thing, Eoin Colfer's very ill-advised attempt to expand the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy universe by penning a sixth volume himself.

I was happy to read (for the first time) that Adams had been so influenced by Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan, as I always loved the book, with its big, dizzy ideas presented in 'casual' prose. I think it's the best of Vonnegut's books, uniting many wonderful scenarios, and I know its author comes close to agreeing with me, for he gives it an 'A' rating in Palm Sunday, his book of essays. According to one of his two recent biographies, Vonnegut wrote the book in very little time after pitching (unprepared) to a publisher at a party that he had an idea for a book about a man who has, for some cosmic reason, turned into a wave phenomenon, or a 'chronosynclastic infundibulum' which means he can journey throughout the solar system and arrive at fixed locations for a few moments, at points in time that proceed as normal time does. (Thus there may be two years between each of his manifestations.) That is a beautiful idea, and it's enough to keep the book powering along, much as Arthur Dent aboard the Heart of Gold spaceship with its 'infinite improbability drive ' powered the first two books of the HHGTTG series.

Even the most ardent fans concede that the quality of the series drops off after The Restaurant at The End of The Universe, though Life, The Universe and Everything is still a good book, despite it being a reworking of a Doctor Who script that was never produced. Actually, I don't know why that is supposed to be such a bad thing. God, I recycle whatever I can, and since the Doctor Who story never went to air, it was all new Adams to us, his grateful followers. I wonder if the story about Vonnegut blindly pitching the idea to a publisher, then finding himself in the situation of having to write it is true. It's a nice anecdote. Something similar happened to me with my book, The Clockwork Forest.

 It was originally presented as a play, and I was supposed to have been more advanced with the script than I was when the play's South Australian producers called me in St Kilda. They wanted to know what they should put on the poster and how big the cast was likely to be. Something possessed me. I started telling a tale with a Buddhist slant about a young man who loses some very beautiful treasures, endeavours to find them, then realises he doesn’t need them any more. The journey he makes in the recovery of the trinkets has given him some insight into what is important about life and what is not. I babbled on, mentioning that the beautiful treasures would be clockwork animals given to the boy by a monk. I think I might have been reading The Invention of Hugo Cabret at the time, which would certainly explain the fixation on clockwork toys. I had also just recently lost some 'treasures' of my own that I had considered to be valuable, though they really weren't. After a half-hour teleconference I had a storyline and six characters. Now, all I had to do was write it, which I did. It's the smoothest ride I have ever had with a book, and I'm very happy with the result. (The play, staged by Brink Theatre Company in Adelaide, was also excellent.)

It's yet to be staged in Melbourne, which is a pity. I think people are put off by going to a show that claims to be 'family theatre', meaning there are likely to be screaming kids in the audience. But it's really more a show for young adults.
Anyway, back to The Sirens of Titan, (and this paragraph contains massive spoilers, so jump over it unless you've already read The Sirens of Titan, which you should really do) I read this book when I was around fifteen, which is the perfect age for such a book, then I was dead keen to read more books like it so I swallowed greedily every book that Vonnegut ever wrote but never quite got the fix I wanted. Then, along came The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which was absolutely the perfect book to read after The Sirens of Titan.  It certainly had a similar episodic feel, with major events in history being tied into a storyline about an alien, Salo, who is waiting on the delivery of a spare part for his disabled spaceship. The pyramids, the Great Wall of China and numerous other great monuments of earth's history are merely Salo's race influencing the ape-like beings on earth to create giant messages in Salo's own language, encouraging him not to despair, that the missing piece is on its way. Salo, you see, is on a very important mission. He has to deliver a message across the galaxy. That message is a small square of metal with one dot on it. The message is 'Welcome'.
But what do I read now? People tell me that Jasper Fforde is every bit as good as Adams and they are very wrong. He's ordinary, and I find it hard to believe that he was unaware of The Kugelmass Episode, one of the best known comedy short stories in the world (written by Woody Allen, no less), before plundering its core concept so shamelessly in his awful 'Tuesday Next' books. I may have the day wrong. I don't care, I'm not going to waste my time googling books I dislike. Jasper Fforde is no more the logical successor to Douglas Adams than I am. But I'm delighted that I found the Sirens of Titan/Adams link. I figured it was there somewhere.

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