Tag Archive: sci-fi

Yesterday, 25th May, was International Towel Day.

I’ve been harping on about this on Facebook for a couple of weeks and I’m quite sure no-one knows what the hell is wrong with me anymore, but that’s because many of them have yet to have their minds and hearts delightfully corrupted by the wondrous “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series of books, by the late great Douglas Adams.

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For other like-minded ladies and gentlemen, here is a profound explanation of the importance of towels, as found in Chapter 3 of Adams’ work The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

“A towel, it 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 vapours; 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-bogglingly 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.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitchhiker 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.

Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.” (Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.)”

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There are five books in Adam’s original Hitchhiker’s series, and a sixth novel written by Artemis Fowl author Eoin Colfer, which I haven’t read and probably never will.  No disrespect to Colfer, but I have such a close relationship with the original books that any semi-official additions seem distinctly sacriligious.

I’m not the only person who feels this way.  These short, humourous science-fiction novels have brought so much joy to readers that they hold them close to their hearts in the way that only a genuinely funny, insightful author could achieve.  The bittersweet tone of the last two books in particular establishes Adams as a writer with great heart.

So what the hell is this Towel Day all about?

It’s a simple commemoration of the author, who was not only a great writer, but a proponent of environmental protection, technological innovation, as well as a respectful (and erudite) atheist.  Adams died suddenly twelve years ago to widespread grief.   The simple towel, as described above, is as good a mascot as any for his commemoration – not to mention that Adams would no doubt love the silliness of knowing that thousands, maybe millions of people around the world are all walking around with towels…

The dedication is huge.  The official Facebook page has some great stories and photos of people across the globe who are celebrating Adam’s life and work in this uniquely peculiar way:

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Thumbing for spacecraft (https://www.facebook.com/towelday)


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kurdistan iraq

Wearing your towel for protection against solar radiation, in Kurdistan, Iraq (https://www.facebook.com/towelday)


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texas 2

Texas – With these towels they do wed! (www.facebook.com/towelday)

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This hoopy frood from Texas already has a ride (www.facebook.com/towelday)

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The answer to Life, the Universe and Everything, from Israel (www.facebook.com/towelday)

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This couple has found the Answer (www.facebook.com/towelday)

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star wars

May 25th is also a Star Wars anniversary, so there are plenty of weird franchise-mixes going on … Stormtroopers celebrate (www.facebook.com/towelday)

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Group celebrations in Argentina (www.facebook.com/towelday)

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A towel as a cape in India (http://imgur.com/6WiQp6T)

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Get this – astronauts on the International Space Station know where their towels are! (twitter.com/AstroSamantha)

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Most of these amazing photos are pilfered from the Facebook page, which I expect will keep running each year.  You can also read about the massive support worldwide at the official site.

There are also numerous shots of pets with their towels, so it’s great to see our quadrupedal planetary co-inhabitants joining in the fun (no dolphins yet though).

I also happened to come across this restaurant whilst taking a walk in Leeds yesterday, so I just had to take a photo:

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The 42 restaurant and bar in Leeds, England

A restaurant and bar, prominent at no.42 on a street in Leeds, England

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Why do I care about all this?

Not because I have an interest in towels, or even for the basic pleasures of supporting a much-admired writer and activist.

It’s partly because Adams suffered from crippling low confidence (not to mention writer’s block), as many of us do, but mainly because his books have always managed to make me laught out loud, even on my darkest days.

No other writer else has been able to do that before or since.



In 1986 science-fiction author Frank Herbert wrote the sixth and last novel in his award-winning “Dune” series before his untimely death.  I read “Dune” probably fifteen years ago in France, and soon finished its remarkable sequels.  The sixth, “Dune: Chapterhouse”, ends on a cliff-hanger of sorts.

For twenty years fans have wondered whether Herbert’s son, Brian, would continue the saga.  A few years ago, he did.

It is with this seventh book, “Hunters of Dune” that I sit in the kitchen where I work.  I’m on my lunch break, I have a whole hour to read, and I’ve just started it.  Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson wrote some pretty average prequels to the original series, which was full of adventure and politics, but this it the first true sequel.  It continues the story I’ve been reading about for over a decade, and admittedly it’s not bad.

Frank Herbert's "Dune"

The office gossip wanders into the kitchen.  She’s harmless but pretty nosy.  Straight away, she’s up to my book where I’ve left it on the table while I get a(nother) cup of tea.

‘What are you reading now, then?’

‘Science fiction’, I say, because it’s the easiest way to end the kind of conversation that the other person isn’t really interested in.

‘Oh,’ she says.  She has already turned away. ‘Oh, I see.’

And I want to scream.

‘”Dune” is the best sci-fi book ever written!’ I want to yell. ‘The writer was a genius!  There are writers out there who aren’t fit to check his ‘scripts for typos, let alone have their books on the same shelf as his!’

I feel this way about only very few writers.  Probably Isaac Asimov, if we’re going to stick with sci-fi for a moment.  Other names that come to mind are Clive Barker, China Mieville, Steph Swainston, Stanislaw Lem.  People whose level of talent you aspire towards, as a writer yourself, but never expect to achieve.

And it galls me when people dismiss a novel – or film, or television – because it is science-fiction.
People who “don’t like sci-fi or fantasy” are, you’ll find on most occasions, people who never read it.  They don’t really know what it is.

They might have dipped into it once – probably the popular Rowling/Meyer trash – and assumed it was indicative of the entire genre.  i.e., unchallenging, insipid, uninvolving.

They have never heard of cyberpunk, or Victoriana, or slipstream, or speculative fiction.  To them, all sci-fi is Star Trek and all fantasy is The Lord of the Rings.

I asked my mother once why she never read fantasy, back when she was a reader.

She said, “I couldn’t pronounce any of the names”.

Way to jump in at the deep end, Mum – Tolkien.  My mischievous big brother probably leant her ‘The Silmarillion’ as a joke.

And Tolkien was a great writer, but is probably the reason why my mother will never ‘get round’ to reading my own novel.

There is a stigma fixed to genre fiction and there doesn’t seem to be any way around it.  People don’t like to try genre fiction because of the notion they have of what it contains: dragons and goblins or, in the case of sci-fi, stiff-backed men in uniform discussing interplanetary politics on a ship’s bridge.

Star Trek has a lot to answer for.

In fact, it has probably damaged science-fiction irreparably.

Sing the song again.  You know you want to.  "Theeeeeere's Klingons on the starboard bow, starboard bow, starboard bow ..."

The 2009 film, which gave the franchise a much-needed reboot, went some way to convincing people that sci-fi isn’t all boring and preachy.  It can be just as exciting and guiltily-satisfying as any action film.  TV’s Futurama brought sci-fi to the living room again, but people don’t think this is ‘real’ sci-fi.  It’s something pretending to be sci-fi.

Sci-fi can’t be funny, like Red Dwarf.  It can’t be an adventure, like Star Wars.  It can’t be beautiful, like Solaris.  These aren’t ‘proper’ sci-fi at all.

But people don’t buy it.  They think these are exceptions to the rule.

The rule is that science-fiction must be rigid and preachy.  It must have, in some form, a federation of military types.  There must be spaceships and, ideally, robots.  One of the most irritating defining characteristics I hear of sci-fi is that it has aliens in it.  As though, without the greys, it’s not sci-fi at all, or else, not ‘proper’ sci-fi.

The same goes for literature.  People hear you’re a writer, it’s the most interesting thing they’ve ever heard.  They’re hear you’re a genre writer, they switch off.

That or it’s, ‘Oh, you’re going to write the next Harry Potter, then?’

Yes.  I’m going to write the next Harry Potter.

In fact, I’m writing it now.

“Harry Potter and the Death of Integrity”.

Yes, I read the books.  I have a right to slag them with my burning contempt.  I deeply, truly regret wasting all those hours, which is why I consider myself free to despise “Twilight” despite the fact that I couldn’t even choke down the whole of the first novel.

‘Never again,’ I promised myself.

Remember Harry Potter.

Re-read Michael Crichton instead.  Re-read “Hitchhikers”.  See if the Foundation books are as good as you remember.

I suppose it’s up to us to repair the reputation of these tarnished genres.  We should try to get some intelligent, spectacular and above all original genre fiction out there.  More steampunk fiction.  More new weird fiction.  Enticing, entrancing, entertaining.

But it’s already out there.  A lot of us know it.  Films are more likely to wake people up than literature.  After all, a film takes up a lot less of your time than a 500-page novel.  It requires less brain-power, even if it has subtitles in places.  But the most original ideas, the ones that aren’t tried and tested, don’t get the budget.  They don’t get the stars.  And they therefore don’t get the marketing or the national releases or the audiences.  A film without an audience might as well not exist.

Some decent stuff gets through.  The Donnie Darkos and the Eden Logs and the Sky Blues.  A few people, outside of their main target audience, gets to see them.  And the love them.  They realise that there’s another side to fantasy and horror and science-fiction.

A new breed.

There might be hope.  Although the paper fiction industry has taken its knock these last two or three years, genre fiction in particular is suffering no worse than the ever-popular mainstream titles.  Granted, it’s supported by the franchise bilge like Dr Who and endless hack’n’slash fantasy.

But the new stuff is there.  Even if it’s Neal Asher or Charlaine Harris.

Just try it.

You might even like it.

— db