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Don’t panic! Today is Towel Day, in memory of Douglas Adams

May 25, 2010

The late, great Douglas Adams.

Far as I can tell, no one knows the last words, if any, of sci-fi humorist Douglas Adams, felled by a heart attack on May 11, 2001, at the age of 49. But I like to think it was something like: “Don’t panic!” Or, more elegiacally: “So long, and thanks for all the fish.”

Today is Towel Day in honor of Adams, who, of course, is the author of the cult novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the other four books in “the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhikers Trilogy,” as well as a number of other books, according to the Guardian.

Perhaps not coincidentally, May 25 is also Geek Pride Day, notes Wired magazine (which ought to know), a celebration that lays claim to everyone from Adams to Pythagoras, Isaac Newton, George Lucas, Benjamin Franklin–and their achievements. Gentlemen: Check your pocket protectors.

Towel Day honors Adams, who, by  wedding Dr. Who-like sci-fi adventure with a Monty Pythonesque absurdist humor (not a quantum leap, once you’ve seen it done),  revolutionized the use of comedy in what was previously a mostly glum genre, thereby making it easier for Neil Gaiman, Eion Colfer and others.

(Yes, yes: I’m aware there were spots of humor in sci-fi before Adams–Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Jose Farmer and Rudy Rucker come to mind– but Hitchhiker changed the genre forever.)

A towel, as anyone who’s read Hitchhiker knows, “is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.”

Hitchhiker’s, which began as a BBC radio comedy before Adams turned it into a novel in 1979, is the story of Arthur Dent, a hapless young Englishman who barely escapes the destruction of the Earth (to make way for an intergalactic freeway) with his bathrobe and towel.

Listing the uses of a towel, Hitchhiker’s says: “For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitchhiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have “lost”. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.”

Adams maintains that comic tone through numerous iterations of Hitchhiker’s, including a BBC series adaptation (far superior to the 2005 feature film; see Roger Ebert for a concise accounting of the movie’s flaws), and four sequels: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe; Life, the Universe and Everything; So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish; and Mostly Harmless.

Activities planned in Adams’ honor today, reports the Guardian, include a pub lunch in Brisbane, flashmobs in Brazil and Berlin, a picnic in Budapest, a Vogon poetry slam in Portland, Oregon, a beer party in Zagreb and a ‘nice cup of tea’ event outside the Pompidou Centre in Paris.”

A complete listing, arranged by country, can be fond at If, like me, you’re not quite ready to let your geek flag fly, the best way you can honor Adams is by reading one of the Hitchhiker’s books, or the equally charming Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, or the environmentalist’s travelogue, Last Chance to See.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. Tommy Smart permalink
    May 25, 2010 1:27 pm

    Don’t Panic? Don’t tell me what to do!

    Adams was a comedic genius. His “Guide” made me pose the question “Does Humor belong in Sci-Fi?” The answer is, of course, but only when done well, and none have come close to Adams.

    If you like Douglas Adams, do not, I repeat, do not pick up “And Another Thing…” (the advertised fifth book in the trilogy) by Eion Colfer. I am actually quite upset with Colfer for smudging the Adams name.

    Not only was Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett influenced by Adams, South Park even has a character named Towelie who’s catchphrase is “Don’t forget to bring a Towel”.

    I really, really, really want a Babel Fish.

    The first time I saw an iPad in real life it reminded me of the Hitchhikers Guide from the Hollywood film.

    • Tommy Smart permalink
      May 25, 2010 1:39 pm

      That’s it! Instead of finishing a research paper, I am going to the beach (while Broward still has one that is not oily) in honor of TowelDay2010, also in honor of not panicking.

      I have played and still own the Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy computer game designed by Adams.

      So my flag is flying at full mast.

      Thank You for bringing this to my attention, Chauncey.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 25, 2010 4:35 pm

      But the film SUCKED! It was awful. It killed my pleasure in the books for a couple of years — not Adams’ fault, but what can you do? It is, as they say, what. It. Is. Thanks for the warning on the Colfer. I like the Artemis Fowl books okay, but I did wonder if he was the right man for this particular job. I believe I would have picked Michael Palin.

      Do pick up Dirk Gently and the Holistic Detective Agency and/or The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. Not part of the Hitch-verse, but prety darned good anyhow.

      • Tommy Smart permalink
        May 25, 2010 8:41 pm

        The film was pretty bad. Surprisingly bad considering the cast. Marvin the paranoid android performed well, at least.

        Micheal Palin may have been okay. Terry Pratchett may have been better. But really, the only person who can write a Douglas Adams book, is Douglas Adams.

        I own both of those novels, and love them both. Dirk Gently still gets a juvenile smirk out of me every time.

  2. rachel permalink
    May 25, 2010 1:38 pm

    I haven’t read Hitchhiker’s Guide or any of his other books, but Towel Day may be too cute for me.

    I think science-fiction kind of necessitates humor. Maybe Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” isn’t funny like “Hitchhiker’s Guide,” like I said I haven’t read it, but it is humorous. And it needs to be. It needs to be in order for us to stomach it. I mean even sci-fi movies, for example, “Dr Strangelove,” and very serious books, like “1984” are humorous.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 25, 2010 4:37 pm

      Towel Day, let’s remember, is not Adams’ invention, but a more/less spontaneous expression of grief and celebration on the part of his friends and fans. I’ll concede, the twee factor is a bit high — always a risk in anything related to Adams.

  3. Tommy Smart permalink
    May 25, 2010 2:01 pm

    I will have to re-read Vonnegut, but agree with you that 1984 and Dr. Strangelove do possess mortician’s humor and can be called, at least in part, Black comedies. I laughed at parts of Orwell’s 1984, when I wasn’t cringing in horror, and yes they were the same parts of the book.

    Adams work seems different to me in that I think his intention was to make me laugh. From start to finish. He had a gift of turning things around, through humor, through showing me another perspective of the same thing, I now saw something different. And I laughed.

    Urban sprawl, Bureaucracy, being hopelessly lost in a universe, the quest for Truth, are not topics I would consider funny, yet the ingeniously absurd Douglas Adams made them so.

    If you ever are ready to stick your thumb up and take a ride through Adams, Universe, I have them all. Just remember “Don’t panic and bring a towel.”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 25, 2010 4:41 pm

      “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face— forever.” Chapter Four, 1984…Yeah, that Orwell: a regular barrel o’ monkeys, that guy.

      • Candice Simmons permalink
        May 26, 2010 9:17 am

        Always loved that quote!!

  4. Candice Simmons permalink
    May 25, 2010 3:56 pm

    My Geek Towel, I mean Flag, is flying high to. I’ve loved Rachel Maddow’s “Geek Week.” Geeks are so cool!

    I also love Adams and Hitchhikers and I think there is a bit of humour in every single thing. We just don’t always recognize it because the serious side is there too. Yin and Yang everybody. The oldest concept in the world–well I don’t know that, but I’m just saying….

  5. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    May 25, 2010 4:41 pm

    I thought it was Ying and Yan…

    • Candice Simmons permalink
      May 26, 2010 9:19 am

      It is. What happened to the ggggggggsssss?

  6. May 25, 2010 5:14 pm

    I read Hitchhikers and I really liked it. I’ll have to pick up another one of his books. I don’t think Towel Day is too cute. I think it honors his memory in a good way. It also reminds me of a certain towel character from the best show on TV: South Park.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 25, 2010 11:21 pm

      Well, it’s been 15 years, at least, but if memory serves I’d recommend The Restaurant at the End of the Universe or Dirk Gently, although I’m sure any of them would be fine fun. I agree South Park is the best show on TV. Unlike, say, Lost, it’s never silly and it always makes sense.

  7. John Karwacki permalink
    May 25, 2010 9:03 pm

    I know where my towel is and it feels as if I have been around the universe a few times. I loved “HGTTU” when I read it in the 80’s. I lost interest after “Restaurant” with “So Long”. I still remember the answer though, 42, right?

    • Tommy Smart permalink
      May 25, 2010 9:19 pm

      Yes, that is the answer. What was the question, though?

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        May 25, 2010 11:23 pm

        How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

  8. Sean permalink
    May 26, 2010 9:25 am

    “… let your geek flag fly … ” – nice! BTW seeing that list of items the strag figures the hitchhiker also has, I’m reminded of “Tempted” by Squeeze: “I bought a toothbrush, some toothpaste, a flannel for my face … ” It’s not a stretch to imagine those guys as “Guide” fans.

  9. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    May 26, 2010 10:50 am

    Indeed, not! And the poor chap in “Cool for Cats” might have benefited from having a towel handy.

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