Androids and Englishmen – A terribly good lineage

This Monday, as my working day began, I cracked open Google to research some German term or other, and found myself immediately distracted by something far more interesting. March 11th would have been writer Douglas Adams’s 61st birthday, and Google had decided to honour his life’s works with one of their “doodles”. I was thrilled – possibly disproportionately so – and proceeded to while away a happy few minutes chuckling at the “entries” in the interactive Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the control console in the drawing.

Douglas Adams is one of my biggest inspirations, in both my writing and my general approach to life. He had a knack for making the absurd normal and the normal absurd which, over the course of many years, has conditioned me to laugh uproariously at situations and sentences other people consider perfectly mundane. As such, I was delighted to find later on in the day (I do actual work sometimes, honestly) that the Guardian had expanded on the Douglas Adams theme with an article in praise of his humour, and pondering his successors in the world of comic science fiction.

In the course of the article, two main names cropped up: Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. As the astute among you may have noticed, the latter is also a huge influence of mine – in fact, the three together form almost a “holy trinity” of inspiration in my budding writing career. Coincidence? I think not. What is it that all these authors have in common?

Obviously they have all written for roughly the same genre, but that alone is not what keeps me coming back to them. As a child, I always had a vivid imagination. At the age of six, I spent several weeks trying to convince everyone that I was an alien from the planet Pluto (back in the days when Pluto was still considered a planet – scientific reclassification has now robbed future generations of this joy). However, the older I got, the more I had to accept that I was, like everyone else, just a boring Earthling – and the more I had to do boring Earthling things, like exams, getting a job and going to university. My coming to terms with the grim reality around me dulled the edge of my imagination, and I found the stories I had read increasingly unappealing – they spoke to me still in terms of pure fantasy, and neglected to give me the tools I required to deal with my impending reality.

It was around this point that I first picked up The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It appealed to me immediately. It contained many of the colourful worlds and beings that had inhabited my imagination for the first twelve years of my existence but, instead of focusing on them solely at the expense of the real world, it took everything dull that makes up that world and stuck it in outer space so I could laugh at how ridiculous it all was. A manic-depressive android, the restaurant at the end of the universe and Earth being unceremoniously destroyed to allow the construction of a hyperspatial express route. It was hilarious.

It was also terribly British. As he tramps around space in his dressing gown, Arthur Dent couldn’t really be more Middle England. He is eternally baffled and cross about the way his world changes around him. He breaks the computer of the most advanced spaceship in the universe by asking it for a cup of tea. He is the English lens through which we see Adams’s galaxy.

To an extent, this is an approach that is also prevalent in the work of Pratchett and Gaiman – sometimes through characters, but also through the way each writer describes the world. Pratchett’s Discworld may not contain any country resembling Britain or England, but his work is full of the wry little observations on real life that were also Adams’s trademark, and Rincewind, the bumbling, perennially novice wizard who often acts as his protagonist, stumbles through life in a manner remarkably similar to Dent.

Likewise, Gaiman has also always had a habit of rooting the fantastical in quaint old England, be it a magical faerie land neighbouring a small village near Ipswich, or a dark and sinister realm located beneath the city of London. Even after living in America for years, he still observes the world from a decidedly British point of view.

(At this point, an honourable mention should also go to Robert Rankin, who has made a career out of writing an incredibly long line of books in which the End Of The World and other common sci-fi tropes are often centred around Brentford, a small town in west London.)

So what is it about “Britishness” that makes it so amusing when applied out of context? Would the same hilarity ensue if Arthur Dent were, say, Italian? It’s hard for me to say, not being as intrinsically familiar with the typical national characteristics of Italians as I am with those of the English, but I often feel that playing on the Mediterranean laid-back lifestyle and love of food often comes across as lazy stereotyping. Perhaps it would work if written by an Italian for an Italian audience. Yet Gaiman, Pratchett and Adams all enjoy global appeal.

Perhaps it is the way that the “Little England” mentality – our fondness of creature comforts, the way we are shocked and appalled by the slightest threat to our status quo, yet unwilling to “cause a fuss” and actually do something about it – jars with the idea of a fantastical space journey, or slaying a dragon. Maybe the “Everyday Englishman” (represented by Dent, Rincewind or Richard Mayhew in Gaiman’s Neverwhere) causes us to laugh in these situations because of the way that the typical (i.e. usually American) Hollywood hero has become ingrained in the global consciousness. When an alien needs blowing up, you want someone who finds a gun and does it, rather than someone who panics and dances round in circles flapping their hands. If they can spit out a catchy one-liner while they’re at it, all the better.

There is also an argument that the idea of making such situations into comedy in the first place is, in a way, quintessentially British. Our first instinct when faced with anything out of the ordinary is often to make light of it and, when it comes to humour, self-deprecation is our speciality. Making fun of our own quaintness and neuroses by putting them in outlandish situations or assigning them to futuristic robots and aliens, then, is simply a natural part of our repertoire.

Whatever the reasons, the styles and approaches of Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett have influenced my own writing and world view immensely, and if I ever manage to write anything comparable to any of them, I will be very happy indeed.

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2 Responses to Androids and Englishmen – A terribly good lineage

  1. Shannon says:

    Praise, praise, praise! While I cannot comment upon the English genius of Pratchett or Gaiman, I must share my love and adoration for Douglas Adams, and the ways in which he affected my childhood, world view and sense of humor in the only way fitting: his own words!

    “A towel, [The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy] says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-boggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.”

    Coincidentally, this is one of the best pieces of travel advice ever and helped prepare me when I first struck out on my own in the world. Douglas Adams is my wordsmith hero. Thank you for posting this brilliant piece!

    • kolyma42 says:

      Excellent! I love the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal. I’m also a huge fan of the Krikkit robots, though they might not chime with you the same, given your geographic point of origin. That and “I never could get the hang of Thursdays,” which seems to apply to Tuesdays in my case.

      Anyway, read Neil Gaiman. Urgently. 🙂

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