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Review: Don’t Panic

Don't PanicIn the interests of full disclosure I’ll mention up front that the publisher sent me this book to review. That would not, however, prevent me from savaging it if I felt that was warranted. Fortunately for the publisher’s blood pressure, it is not; I quite liked it.

Don’t Panic by Neil Gaiman isn’t precisely a biography of Douglas Adams but more an exploration of how The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came to be; however, the background for that happens to include a lot of biographical details.

Gaiman examines the various incarnations of the Guide (radio show, books, stage productions both well-received and decidedly not), discussing the obstacles and occasional bits of serendipity involved in the creation of each. Adams is depicted as succeeding almost in spite of himself, with the extremely positive reception of the first radio series and first book spurring sequels which he was not always comfortable writing. Flaws in the later books, for instance, can be attributed to his tendency to write them after he had blown through every possible deadline and was finally locked in a hotel room by his publishers to produce something–anything!–as quickly as possible.

Surprisingly (to me at least), there was quite a lot of drama surrounding the Guide in its various forms. Adams had a tendency–through (at least, as Gaiman portrays him) mild bewilderment rather than malice–to step on others’ toes, and more than one of them reacted with considerable acrimony. Far from building smoothly from one success to the next, work on various Guide incarnations lurched along and was nearly derailed more than once.

Gaiman writes in a chatty, engaging style that is peppered (albeit sometimes consciously so) with Adams-isms. His coverage of the Guide’s history is thorough and includes lots of quotes from people associated with its creation, detailing their memories of Adams and his project. There are lots of interesting tidbits sprinkled into the narrative–I was amused, for instance, to learn who played the Dish of the Day in the TV series–and the book does a good job of exploring how dramatically the story changes from one medium to another: Minor details in the radio series might become major plot points in the books, while other important subplots might disappear entirely. (An appendix summarizes the “variant texts” of the Guide through various media, which is helpful for figuring out the chief differences.) Also explored is the significant influence Doctor Who–on which Adams worked as a script editor–and the Guide had on each other; The third Guide novel, for instance, began life as a script treatment called “Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen.”

Don’t Panic was originally published in 1988, but this new edition has been expanded to cover the Guide’s movie version, additional novels, and Adams’ unexpected death and its aftermath. It ends with a short piece about Eoin Coifer’s sequel (planned but not yet released when Gaiman went to print).

My only real quibble about the book is minor and has to do with its layout: It includes quite a lot of sidebar-type stuff, such as material cut from the radio series, but some of it is interspersed with the text in such a way that it’s difficult to tell at a glance if it’s part of the narrative. I frequently had to pause for a moment to figure out where I should be reading next and it interrupted the flow of the story somewhat.

This book is a highly entertaining peek behind the scenes at the creation of the Guide, and is a recommended read even if you only have a casual acquaintance with Adams and his work. Fun! Educational! Go check it out!

Posted in Books & Authors November 12th, 2009 by Chip
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