I was listening to the second episode of the Quandary Phase of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio show today (via streaming RealAudio from the BBC Radio 4 webpage), and it got me to thinking. Yesterday, May 11th, was the 4th anniversary of Douglas Adams’s untimely death, and though I never met the man, I still miss him.
My interest in the new radio show, coupled with revising a few Wikipedia entries today, caused me to look up what Wikipedia had to say about the Hitchhiker’s Guide. Along the way, I found something quite unexpected: the theme song to the H2G2 radio show was not done by some British chappie—it was actually done by the Eagles. That’s right, the American country-rock group with Don Henley, Glenn Frey and the rest. The song is called “Journey of the Sorcerer” (here’s its iTunes Music Store link) and is actually almost 7 minutes long. I bought it and took a listen. It’s neat to be able to hear the entire work, including the pieces that weren’t used for the radio show.
I also happened to mention it to some friends on-line, and one of them noticed that the iTunes Music Store listing for One of These Nights, the album it was on, said it was released on May 21, 1985. This was 7 years after the radio show, so he thought they must have covered it. I knew that wasn’t right, the Eagles had already broken up by then, so I pulled up my web browser and typed “Eagles discography” into the Google search box, coming up with this page as the top result—and this page revealed the album actually came out on 6/10/75. (Of course, if I’d read a little further down in the iTunes window, I could have pointed that out to my friend without having to do that, since though the date in the header was wrong, the descriptive blurb of the album did mention the right date.)
Only after I’d done that did it really occur to me—except for the fact I’d done it on a desktop machine instead of a hand-held gadget, I had done exactly what one of Douglas Adams’s characters might have: I typed a query into an electronic repository of knowledge, and boom, there was my answer. Just as if I’d looked it up in the Guide.
Douglas really was ahead of his time, you know. The titular object in the Hitchhiker’s Guide series is one of the first things resembling the modern ebook to appear in SF literature. It’s also one of the earlier SF depictions of hypertext—an encyclopedia where “see also” references could be followed directly to the entries in question. I don’t know if Adams was influenced by any of Vannevar Bush’s original writings on hypertext, but I do know he was an early adopter of it in his personal life too; he stored the entries for his work The Meaning of Liff on a hypercard stack until a virus destroyed the computer it was on. He was also crazy about PDAs, and excited about the idea of being able to have a Hitchhiker’s Guide-style compendium of knowledge accessible from a pocket-sized device in real life just as in his stories. That was where the h2g2 on-line user-edited encyclopedia had its genesis after all.
It’s so unfair that he was taken from us in the prime of his life, only partway through what should by rights have been a long and full career. Now we’ll never know what might have been—and the Hitchhiker’s Guide saga will forever end on the sour note of Mostly Harmless which Adams wrote during a bad year and never intended to be the last Hitchhiker’s Guide book. (Though reportedly the radio show may follow the grand tradition of other iterations of the Hitchhiker’s Guide saga by rewriting that, too.)
So long, Douglas, and thanks for all the books. I only wish you could have written more.