Now that Max Landis‘s impressionistic vision of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is upon us (premiering October 22 on BBC AMERICA), we’re all getting a chance to revisit the peculiar mindscape of Douglas Adams, a comically serious, philosophically irreverent, universally provincial and breezily scientific place where no detail is too trivial and no handed-down human assumption left unchallenged.
For newcomers to his worldview, the best advice if you want to explore further is to mainline both Dirk Gently books—Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul—and all of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, radio and BBC TV shows. Then wallow in the glorious lexicographical invention of The Meaning of Liff, after which, his universe is your Ravenous Bugblatter Beast (of Traal).
But if you’ve already completed the lot and are looking for something in the same vein, here are a few suggestions.
Some are more obvious than others, such as…
The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett
You can’t wander too far from Douglas Adams without running into Terry Pratchett, his comic and philosophical peer. While the former mostly dealt with science fiction and the latter mostly dealt with fantasy, their most notable works both did a very similar thing. Both placed the parochial concerns of modern humanity into a fictitious reality in which supernatural events were commonplace. But where Douglas’s magical reality invokes (mostly) plausible science, Terry’s magical reality uses actual magic. His Discworld novels—of which The Colour of Magic is the first—are unheroic and achingly British affairs, set in a universe of magical walking luggage and faintly rubbish wizards, and drawing in comic influences from Monty Python, surrealism, pantomime and, well, Douglas Adams.
A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle
Douglas Adams’ stories are hugely popular with teenage readers, not least because they are overflowing with both irreverent humor and mind-opening cosmic leaps of imagination, so it’s no great stretch to recommend a book that aims itself at a younger readership and then overshoots in all manner of brilliant ways. Essentially the story of a 13-year-old girl who is struggling to find a place for herself since her father disappeared, A Wrinkle in Time mixes the scientific with the fantastical. There’s a haunted house, three eccentric elder women called Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which (soon to be played in a Disney movie adaptation by Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling and Oprah Winfrey, respectively) who travel across the universe by tesseract, a five-dimensional fold in space and time.
The Rest of Us Just Live Here – Patrick Ness
Apart from the Doctor Who connection—Douglas Adams was a script editor for the show in the 1970s, while Patrick Ness is the writer and executive producer on the new spin-off Class—what the two writers share is a knack for spotting an unusual twist in everyday storytelling. For example, what if there was some kind of paranormal attack on your community, and you weren’t one of the charismatic protagonists specially chosen by fate to play a decisive role in dealing with it? What if you were a bystander with perfectly normal teenage concerns—like asking your crush to the prom—while other, cooler kids get to go off and be heroes? The Rest of Us Just Live Here is that story.
The Humans – Matt Haig
While Hitchhiker’s Guide is the story of a man taken from Earth and hurled across space and time in his dressing gown, The Humans is the exact reverse. It’s the story of an alien who comes to Earth, taking up the form of a professor at Cambridge University, and has to learn how to interpret human society, absorbing the influence of biological impulse and centuries of conditioning in order to integrate with his host body’s community, his work colleagues, and trickiest of all, his family.
Sparks – David Quantick
Closer to the spirit of Dirk Gently than Hitchhikers, Sparks is the tale of a man unduly blessed with prospects, who chances upon a way to travel between alternate universes and embarks upon a vague quest to try to restore those elements of his life that had been less than satisfactory. While David Quantick shares with Douglas Adams an affection for unheroic heroes and a certain cosmic weariness, he has also contributed something to the Doctor Who universe, having written the Big Finish Seventh Doctor adventure “The Dark Husband.”
More Trees to Climb – Ben Moor
Other writers have been inspired by the boundless sense of possibility in Douglas Adams’ writing, the idea that there’s a practically infinite universe out there, so almost anything is feasible. Ben Moor’s three charming short stories—based on shows he performed as a stand-up comic—have that extended sense of reality, but hone in on the personal, emotive details. This allows him to create lovely imaginative tales—such as the story of love across official tree-climbing competitions—that are utterly charming, and then pepper the prose with superb (and occasionally groan-inducing) puns, worthy of any dad.
Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman and Douglas Adams were friends, with Neil even writing a much-loved history of Douglas’s most celebrated creation entitled Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion. Neil’s own fantastical creations are often similarly rooted in people’s everyday reactions to fantastical stimuli. Neverwhere is an excellent case in point, being an alternative travelogue of London from above—the city we’ve all seen in TV and the movies—and the starkly different circumstances of those creatures who live below that reality. It is also a book that was written as the novelization of a TV series (which Neil wrote with Lenny Henry), something it shares with Hitchhiker’s Guide—which was only novelized after it was already a hit radio drama for the BBC.
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency premieres on BBC AMERICA on Saturday, October 22 at 9/8c.
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