Thursday, December 29, 2011

Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams & Mark Carwardine

Source of book: Borrowed from and recommended by my friend Christel Ruddy

The late Douglas Adams is best known as the author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy science fiction series. Mark Carwardine is a zoologist, photographer, and writer who is primarily known for this book and the related BBC radio and television productions.

Those familiar with Hitchhiker’s Guide will need no explanation of Adams’ rather dark and dry humor. Those who are not may be puzzled by references to towels, improbability, and the number forty-two by us fans. Regardless of which category the reader is in, this book is worth a look.

Adams and Carwardine decide to take an extended trip to attempt to see the world’s most endangered animal species. Their adventures were originally told as a BBC radio series, with most of the episodes eventually written down as the basis for this book. Two were omitted due to Adams’ inability to meet deadlines. (He famously said: “"I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.") The book is the story of their wanderings, and a compelling argument for continued conservation efforts.

This book was written in 1990, so more than 20 years have passed since Adams and Carwardine conducted their searches. In that time, one of the species (the Yangtze River Dolphin) has probably gone extinct, and a few of the others remain critically endangered. For others, however, their numbers are on the increase, largely as a result of conservation efforts. Thus, the book is both heartening and disheartening.

Adams appears to have done most of the writing, as the story is told from his point of view, and with his characteristic humor.

Adams also wrote from a purely naturalistic point of view, which leads to a few philosophical inconsistencies. The first is a typical conundrum: if everything came into being through random mutation and natural selection, extinction should be considered to be a natural and even desirable event. Why attempt to preserve that which is not fit, or at least not the fittest?

The second inconsistency is raised by Adams himself in a musing on question of evil. From a purely philosophical point of view, Adams does not consider evil as being any more than an opinion, a result of rules made by human thought. On the other, he clearly believes that certain other people are evil. For example, he believes that those who thoughtlessly kill endangered animals are evil. He also has nothing but loathing for gauche tourists, although he admits that he cannot come up with a legitimate reason for his belief. At least Adams is honest enough to admit the inconsistency.

The reader’s opinion of the writing style will probably depend on his or her tolerance for dry, snarky humor. This book has much in common with Mark Twain’s travelogues, although it is not nearly as detailed or polished. At his worst, Adams begins to sound like Marvin, the depressed robot, who is more tolerable as a fictional character than as a narrator. At his best, however, Adams is delightful. For example, in speaking of the bureaucracy left behind in post-colonial Africa: “You can always tell an ex-colony from the inordinate numbers of people who are able to find employment stopping anybody who has anything to do from doing it.”

This book looks more imposing that it is, with thick pages and largish print making for a quick read. It succeeds in bringing the raw edge of last-ditch conservation to life. For those of us who view the world as a creation, it is a sobering reminder of what we have lost, and what we could never see again.

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