Douglas Adams, Kilgore Trout and Naked Sex-Robots

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Douglas Adams, Kilgore Trout and Naked Sex-Robots

Science Fiction writers love to refer to the works of other science fiction writers - if one author comes up with a good idea, other writers may use it. The works of Douglas Adams are a good example of this - they get much of their humour from sly references to ideas across the whole of science fiction. The more of this genre you've read, the more you'll recognise the scenes of his stories as being inspired by other works but with his own unusual twist on them.

Adams also liked to poke fun at his friends in his works. In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, as an example of the worst poet ever, he gave the name of a friend of his who dabbled in poetry. (This was later changed by the editors to a similar but fictitious name.) He was friends with the members of the band Pink Floyd, even performing with them once on stage. He included the band in his works as 'Disaster Area', and referenced their song 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun'.

Kurt Vonnegut and Kilgore Trout

Kurt Vonnegut was an American author of works which are sometimes called Science Fiction. One of the recurring characters in many of his books is Kilgore Trout1 who (in the stories) is an unsuccessful science fiction writer. Trout's works are disregarded because the only publisher who will take them uses them as filler material in pornographic magazines. Trout rarely appears in person in the stories but his books are frequently described.

Trout's plots include one in which an alien invasion of Earth is foiled when the entire invasion fleet turns out to be so small that it is eaten by a dog2. Douglas Adams used this idea in his Hitchhiker's Guide series, so there is no doubt that Adams was familiar with the work of Kurt Vonnegut.

On a more speculative note, three of the novels attributed to Trout have the invented phrase 'Pan-Galactic' in their titles: 'The Pan-Galactic Straw Boss', 'The Pan-Galactic Memory Bank' and 'The Pan-Galactic Three-Day Pass'. It may be these that inspired Adams's cocktail, the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.

In Vonnegut's book God Bless You Mr Rosewater, a character finds a book by Trout called 'Venus on the Half-Shell'. The name was inspired by Botticelli's painting The Birth of Venus which shows the goddess Venus rising out of the sea on a seashell, fully formed and naked. The phrase 'on the half-shell' is an American one used in restaurant menus when describing oysters. Vonnegut 'quotes' an extract from the book.

Trout Publishes a Book

In 1974, Vonnegut's readers were surprised to find Venus on the Half-Shell on sale as an actual paperback book, with the author given as Kilgore Trout. Many people, including myself, assumed that this was written by Vonnegut, and it certainly had the same style as many of his books. It was a trashy novel, exactly the sort that Trout would have written. In fact this book was written by another American writer, Philip José Farmer, as a tribute to Vonnegut.

Unfortunately, Vonnegut was not impressed. Although he had given permission for Farmer to write it, he didn't like the readers' assumption that he himself had written it, and he misinterpreted a comment Farmer had made to mean that Farmer would have written it even without his permission. The book was republished many years later under Farmer's own name, and with a long foreword explaining this.

Inspiration for the Hitchhiker's Guide

The plot of 'Venus on the Half-Shell' is interesting to Douglas Adams fans, as it appears to be the direct inspiration for Adams's 'Hitchhiker's Guide' series. In Trout/Farmer's book, our world is destroyed by aliens, and a lone survivor wanders through the universe in search of the meaning of Life. Yes, it does actually use the phrase 'the meaning of Life'. His 'primal' question is 'Why were we born only to suffer and die?' He eventually finds the answer by talking to the oldest inhabitant of the universe, one so old that he met the Creator when It3 was still putting the finishing touches to Its creation.

There are definite differences, of course:

  • The destruction of our world is not the first encounter of humans with aliens. The Space Wanderer lives in a time in the future when aliens often visit Earth and there are spaceships parked in spaceports around the world.

  • The Planet Earth is not actually disintegrated. Instead, the world is destroyed by a giant flood similar to Noah's flood. This is organised by aliens to purge the Earth, removing the damage done by the human race. The planet will recover although the human race has been destroyed.

  • The Space Wanderer has no Guide to help him. That was Adams's idea.

  • While the Space Wanderer encounters and is accompanied by a robot for much of the story, it is quite different from the depressed robot described as an 'electronic sulking machine' in 'The Hitchhiker's Guide'. This one is female, beautiful and equipped for sex. Farmer was the author credited with introducing sex to science fiction, so there's a lot of sex in this book. The Space Wanderer's name, Simon Wagstaff, is an indication of one of the major activities he gets up to as he tours the Universe.


So was Douglas Adams inspired by this book? Definitely! Here's the detailed evidence.

  • The third sentence of 'Venus...' is 'The Universe is big, perhaps even the biggest.' The first entry in the fictional Hitchhiker's Guide was 'Space is big...'

  • Just about the only company mentioned in the book is the 'Sirian Trading Corporation'. In The Hitchhiker's Guide, the robots and automated equipment with personalities are made by the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation.

  • There is a scheme to rid Earth of all perverts, by shipping them all into space. This is paralleled by Adams's scheme to get rid of all the useless people such as hairdressers, interior decorators and management consultants by shipping them off into space.

  • A rather tangential one: the ship in which the Space Wanderer tours the galaxy is called the Hwang Ho, which is Chinese for Yellow River. Arthur Dent's spaceship is the Heart of Gold. Is the similarity of Yellow and Gold a coincidence? Perhaps. It's also interesting that the yellow river referred to might not be the one in China, given the Hwang Ho is shaped like a giant penis.

  • The oldest inhabitant of the universe says of the Creator, 'It went out to lunch one day and never came back.' In Hitchhiker's, the Editors of the Guide went out to lunch and didn't come back.

So it certainly appears that Douglas Adams read this book and was inspired by it to produce his own masterpiece.

Is Venus on the Half-Shell worth reading? Probably not. It's a mediocre book, only really of interest because of its connection with Douglas Adams.

Notes from Around the Sundial Archive


06.11.17 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1The name itself is a reference to Vonnegut's friend and fellow science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon.2This idea in a slightly different form also features in the short story 'Meteor' by John Wyndham, published in 'The Seeds of Time', 1956. The tiny aliens are almost wiped out by an encounter with a cat, and those that survive are mistaken for garden pests by a human who then kills them with insecticide.3The Creator is considered to be neither male nor female.

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