The Salmon of Doubt
By Douglass Adams
Published by Recorded Books
Read by Simon Jones (with the voices of Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Cerf
When a talented and beloved author dies, it is always a great temptation to go through all his notes, papers and, in this case, computer files in an attempt to pull out one or two more stories for his fans and to stand as a memorial. However, sometimes that might not be a really good idea and, sadly, I think this is one of those times.
I have been a big fan of Adams ever since I listened to one episode of the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” radio series while visiting Great Britain. I have to admit that while I loved the Hitchhikers’ Guide, I did not love the Dirk Gently novels, and had heard “The Salmon of Doubt” was at least originally conceived as a Dirk Gently novel. However, with one last chance to listen to Adams’ words I downloaded this audiobook.
I grew a bit tired with the eulogistic introductions, which were repetitious and possibly unnecessary. Adams could definitely speak for himself, but the book starts out interestingly enough with a tale of a pair of dogs that seem to have adopted Adams while he was staying in Santa Fe. It was followed by an only slightly different story about those two dogs which was really not so different. My private guess is that he was not entirely pleased with whichever he wrote first and tried it another way. I wonder how many versions of the dog story were on his Mac.
After that, we are treated (sometimes subjected) to various short articles and speeches by Adams on a variety of subjects, many of which I noticed Adams seemed to have accepted not because they were logical with a lot of basis behind them, but because they sounded good to him. A prize example of that has to have been his acceptance of the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis. NB: some call it the Aquatic Ape Theory, but so far there is no hard proof behind it and as more for the fossil record fills in, there seems to be less and less of a window in which the ancestors of Humans might have lived the semi-aquatic lifestyle the hypothesis relies on.
As a side note: I had the pleasure of a brief correspondence some years ago with Elaine Morgan, the leading proponent of the hypothesis in the late 20th Century. I found her intelligent, courteous and brave enough to be willing to suffer the slings and arrows of her detractors. She was unable to convince me that we are definitely descended from aquatic apes and we soon agreed to politely disagree.
The problem is that without proof, the hypothesis, which states that a brief semi-aquatic existence explains why humans have far less hair than apes, is merely a “Just-So” story. It sounds good until you look at it using the fossil evidence. Douglass Adams, however, having no (or insufficient) training in paleo-anthropology accepted it easily. As I listened to the rest of the book, I soon realized that this was how he treated almost everything. If it sounded good to him, he accepted it as truth, regardless of the facts. Sometimes he was right and sometimes… not so much.
Another example was something he wrote about his complaints about why he needed more than one word processor in order to write his stories. This is not a problem I ever had, but he goes on and on about having to reformat and export to one program or another in order to get some feature he wanted at the time. Then I realized what the problem was: he was using a Macintosh in 1985 or 86. This is not a slam at the Mac, really, but at the software bundles that were available for it and for PCs really at the time. He goes on to complain that he should be able to just click and instantly add in just the features he wants from other word processors and other programs, like Excel spreadsheets as well, which displayed how little he knew not only about the programming that went on beneath the glossy screen surface but about software copyright laws.
This, in turn, opened my eyes to another great fault of his. Maybe he was just having a bad day when writing all these articles, but he seemed to have a great disdain for anyone who did not think like he did. He repeatedly refers to anyone (or anything) who thinks differently as stupid and his entire tone, even when not saying such things comes off as “I know how everything should work, why can’t anyone else see it?” This sort of thing can make for good comedy, but tiresome articles and speeches.
And one more thing I noticed, once you have read enough of Adams’ work, he is amazingly predictable. What, on first acquaintance, is full of fresh perspective and verbal nuance, becomes familiar and easy to figure out before he says it because, essentially, so much of his humor turns out to be variations on the same theme. Once you hear enough of the set-up you can see where he is going long before he gets there. I might not have noticed that had it not been for this book.
Eventually, we get to hear (or read) the few chapters of what Adams wrote of “The Salmon of Doubt” as a Dirk Gently novel, which comes after three or four repetitive interviews in which he says it might get reworked as a sixth Hitchhikers book. Listening to this, after the curmudgeonly collection of article and speeches, I felt that Adams was using Gently to voice all his grumbles at the world and why it does not work the way he thinks it should – something that wouldn’t have occurred to me before.
And finally the book concludes with a self-indulgent and autobiographical day in the life of Douglas Adams (for all I know he might have written it because he could not think of anything else) which just ruined what few bits of the book I did enjoy. What I came away with was that Adams did not like writing. I did not figure out why he did it, but I did see that he probably never understood how lucky he was to publish all those best-selling novels (TV series, radio plays, newspaper article series etc.) which, in turn, made him rich enough to be able to do whatever he darned-well wanted to while attempting not to write. Indeed, he frequently had to be forced to write, practically chained to his desk until he produced something. No, he just did not realize how lucky he was. Very sad.
Simon Jones has long been the voice of Douglass Adams, even when Adams was speaking for himself such as in the release of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in which Adams read the book for himself. He still sounded like Simon Jones. Jones, does an excellent job of reading Adams words and if you were a fan of the radio series, his voice is a comforting bit of familiarity as you plod through these repetitive and yet possibly unknown bits and pieces. I enjoyed listening to him. The other voices credited, wrote and spoke very similar eulogies as though they were all given the same plot outline to work from. Having heard one, none of the others actually added much I had not already heard.
So, all told, if you’re a fan of Douglass Adams, you may want to skip this book. It certainly tarnished the golden idol for me.