The end of an era, as one of the world’s longest-running print fanzines finally brings a halt to its life, universe and everything.
The world’s only print publication devoted exclusively to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the works of Douglas Adams is coming to an end. After, appropriately, 42 years.
In January 1981, the same month that the Hitchhiker’s TV series was first broadcast on BBC 2, the newly formed ‘ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Appreciation Society’* distributed to its handful of members a collection of stapled photocopied A4 sheets. This was issue 1 of Mostly Harmless, subtitled ‘The Newsletter of ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha’, and the front cover had obviously been created using a plastic alphabet stencil.
This was raw fanzine production, when ‘cut and paste’ literally involved scissors and a Pritt Stick. When ‘word processing’ meant thinking about your next move in Scrabble. When ‘desktop publishing’ was a catalogue of office furniture. When choosing the right font only mattered to someone restoring an old church. When the only digital things involved were the editors’ fingers.
That first issue included an interview with Simon Jones, some notes on towel self-defence, some Hitchhiker’s Guide fan fiction, and something called ‘Singalongaslartibartfast’. After a few issues, MH (as it rapidly became known) settled down into an A5 format, with cast and crew interviews, news and reviews, magazine cuttings, meeting reports and (thankfully) progressively less and less fan fiction.
My first issue was MH7, which included a review of the new third and final book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy, Life, the Universe and Everything. And if that seems like a prediction unfulfilled, the following issue had exciting news about the movie which was due to arrive in cinemas in early 1985.
Since then, Mostly Harmless has been published every three months (barring a couple of brief interruptions) with issue 165 due to hit doormats this month. In recent years, ZZ9 has offered an alternative, cheaper subscription for those who are happy to receive MH as a PDF. While those of us with print subs will continue to receive a paper copy until our next renewal is due, anyone joining from January 2023 (via www.zz9.org) will only be able to subscribe digitally. It is the end of an era.
Over the course of those 42 years, Mostly Harmless has reflected changes in society and technology generally. What was once the only source of current information now rounds up all the news scattered across the sub-etha wavebands from the previous quarter. Like most modern print publications, it summarises what we have seen or missed rather than telling us something new; a journal of record rather than reportage.
Yet across 4.2 decades there has never been any shortage of relevant news. After Adams’ early death in 2001, Hitchhiker’s Guide continued to proliferate as a cross-media franchise, arguably more than ever without its creator’s notoriously unproductive determination to meticulously oversee everything… later. And there are always, always, always pop culture references to note, collected since issue 5 into the magazine’s ‘Towel Corner’ column.
One of ZZ9’s strengths has been that, from its second year of existence, the society has had a democratically elected committee. Granted, the pool of nominations is often small and some positions have required a degree of co-opting, but this has kept the society accountable, avoiding the controversies which have sometimes dogged similar fan clubs.
The post of ‘MH Editor’ is an elected committee position, one that I held for a couple of years in the 1990s, compiling issues 51 to 58. That was a boom time for ZZ9 membership, not because of my own humble editorial efforts but because the club somehow got its postal address onto the back page of the paperback of the fifth book (also called, of course, Mostly Harmless).
Membership, which had hovered around 400-500 for many years through a combination of a long-term core and a remarkably consistent turnover of passing interest, momentarily crested 1,000. I believe it’s now down to a couple of hundred, mostly those long-term fans. The nature of Hitchhiker’s Guide is that it’s something pretty much everyone likes (I honestly cannot recall ever meeting anyone who didn’t enjoy it in some form) but something only a very few people are passionate about, unlike Star Trek, Star Wars or Doctor Who.
That boost in membership prompted a bumper crop of submitted material and the concomitant impracticality of stapling so many pages led to MH briefly becoming an A4 publication with glossy covers. The mag was laid out on a PC, using (I think) WordPerfect, with artwork scanned in laboriously using a handheld scanner. Ask your parents, kids. After handing over the editorial reins, I served as ZZ9 President for a while, my desk in the SFX office giving me a suitably high profile from which to promote the club. After that, I was given the entirely spurious honorary title of Research Archivist.
As well as the numerous actors, crew members and Adams-ian collaborators who have been interviewed in Mostly Harmless, a few notable people have been involved in its production. One of the early editors was Dave Julyan who is now a film composer with credits that include the scores for Memento, Eden Lake and The Cabin in the Woods. Fantasy artist Anne Stokes, whose exquisite dragons and fairies grace all manner of calendars, lunchboxes etc at your local goth shop, provided some stunning cover artwork before turning pro. And there’s me, I suppose, with my handful of Hitchhiker and horror books.
The ZZ9 AGM this November is being branded as the club’s 42nd birthday party and will no doubt include extensive discussion, both formal and informal, about what purpose the society serves and how long it can continue. The web, which was no more than a scribbled idea in the margin of Tim Berners-Lee’s notepad when ZZ9 was founded, has largely rendered such organisations superfluous and, to some extent, the society carries on through sheer bloody-mindedness. In recent years, sadly, every issue of MH has carried at least one obituary of either someone involved with Hitchhiker’s or a long-term member of the club.
To the best of my knowledge, the only complete run of Mostly Harmless sits in the collection of Terry Platt, an Islington-based collector of all things Hitchhikery whose late 1970s/early 1980s scrapbooks were invaluable when I was writing Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams. My own collection, covering issues 7-92, was donated along with all my other Adams-ian gubbins** to the Science Fiction Foundation archives at Liverpool University shortly after I completed the biography.
A little later I dropped out of ZZ9 for a few years, distancing myself from Hitchhiker’s Guide after receiving online abuse from Adams fanboys for my detailed critique of the problems with the film (that’s a whole other story). After a bit though, I figured that I still actually enjoyed HHGG and missed the old gang so signed up once more, enjoying the reassuring quarterly A5 comfort of Mostly Harmless plopping through my letterbox. Sometimes you can go home again. At least for a while.
Forty-two years and 160+ issues is a pretty good run for any publication. I salute all my fellow MH editors over the years and look forward to sharing a bottle of that ol’ Janx Spirit with some of them at the AGM and the raucous party it will no doubt turn into after Any Other Business.
*ZZ9 later added ‘Official’ to its name, after getting the nod from Douglas Adams.
**This included a box of stuff Neil Gaiman very kindly sent me which he had left over from writing Don’t Panic.
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