28 July 2012

Books: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams (1987)



I had been reading Shada, the Doctor Who story from 1979 that got canceled due to a production stoppage at the BBC. Douglas Adams, who wrote Shada, never wanted that story novelized –mostly because he felt the serial was week (see this posting). However, in 1987 he released Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. That novel recycled bits from Shada and another Doctor Who story he wrote, City of Death. So, after reading Gareth Roberts version of Shada, I pulled out my old copy of Dirk Gently, and for the first time since it was released 25 years ago, I re-read it. 

While the novel is nonlinear, it basically starts four billion years in Earth's past, when a group of alien Salaxalans attempt to populate the earth. But a mistake caused by their engineer – who used an Electric Monk to irrationally believe the proposed fix would work – causes their landing craft to explode, killing the Salaxalans and generating the spark of energy needed to start the process of life on Earth. The ghost of the Salaxalan engineer roams the earth waiting to undo his mistake, watching human life develop and waiting to find a soul that it can possess. 

The above plot element was part of Adam’s City of Death serial of Doctor Who.

To help accelerate things, the Salaxalan ghost encounters  Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the 19th Century  and tries to influence the writer to add a second section to "Kubla Khan" and alter parts of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" to describe how to correct the problem that destroyed the landing craft in the distant past. The ghost later discovers that Professor Urban "Reg" Chronotis (the same, yet different one featured in Shada) at St Cedd's possesses a time machine disguised as his quarters and in the late 20th Century, during the annual St Cedd's dinner reading of "Kubla Khan", the ghost influences Reg to use the time machine to perform a bit of trickery for a young child at the dinner, while the ghost lures another Electric Monk into Reg's quarters. Upon return to the present, the ghost finds the Monk unusable for its purposes. The Monk then goes off to kill Wayforward Technologies II's CEO, Gordon Way, due to a misunderstanding.

What amazes me about this book, and about Douglas Adams, was while the plot is complicated and at times very confusing, it is also a clever science fiction novel that tries –as Dirk believes in, the "fundamental interconnectedness of all things", where many details that may appear to be superfluous, turn out to be integral to the plot. It is also, in many ways, a smart novel – the characters talk on the concept of Schrödinger's Cat, which Dirk uses to determine Richard MacDuff’s mental state, with Richard producing clear and rational arguments for why the experiment proposed in the theory cannot be carried out in reality.

It makes little sense to me. But that’s why I think Adams was way ahead of his times, and why his death in 2001 at the age of 49 (same as I am now) was such a huge loss. Otherwise, the novel is whimsical and written in typical Adams style for silly humor and thought provoking ideas. 

I should re-read this book more often.

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