Last Chance to See, Douglas Adams' travelogue of journeys to see rare and endangered animals with zoologist Mark Carwardine, is available both in print and as an electronic book on a double CD-ROM.
The first trip, to Madagascar in 1985, was for Observer Colour Magazine and photographed by Alain Le Garsmeur. The subsequent trips, made over a period of about ten months in 1988 and 1989, were recorded for BBC Radio and photographed by Adams and Carwardine. The sheer amount of recordings and images that document the trips could not be easily accommodated in an affordable printed book. For example, the Ballantine edition of Last Chance is not illustrated, there are no sidebars, and it includes nothing but Adams' and Carwardine's text, plus a 16 page gathering of photographs in the middle of the book. CD-ROM is a better suited medium for Last Chance. On the CD, the text is accompanied by hundreds of photographs, maps, interviews, sound recordings and datasheets about the animals.
Adams reads aloud from the text which appears to one side of the window, while illustrations occupy the other. The user can control the sound and the image display. It is also possible to hide the text and let the images fill the screen.
The photographs on the CD aren't captioned, which makes for nice image viewing but it can be difficult to tell who (or what) is pictured. It is frustrating to guess at who, among all the people who populate the journeys, you might be seeing. The lack of captions is even more irritating for the animal photographs. The problem is exacerbated when Adams is describing some particular animal or person and you are pretty sure you are looking at something completely different. It's almost like Somehow the part of the brain that allows us to conjure up mental images when we read is short circuited by the presence of the contradicting photos on the screen. It's usually not disconcerting to read a book that has one illustration per page, rather than one illustration for everything mentioned in the text. But it is difficult to follow the flow of Adams' stories as he reads, when looking at on screen images that don't correspond to the spoken text. I am not sure if it is possible to coordinate the senses in a way that would lessen the disorientation that occurs when the images aren't corresponding to the spoken text, this may only be overcome by accompanying the text with more essential images or moving images.
Occasionally small images will appear on top of the central display, that allow the user to move to sidebars with a click of the mouse. The sidebars contain a wide variety of material: portraits & recorded interviews of people Adams and Carwardine met on the trips, as well as maps, photographs, sound recordings of the animals, and even a computer program. Usually readers can return to particular parts of the CD by placing bookmarks, but bookmarks aren't enabled for the sidebars. Because the sidebars contain material whose identity and position are difficult to determine by using the table of contents or recalling the storyline, it's frustrating that they can't be bookmarked.
Reading written dialogue in a printed text can often be tedious and confusing. Conventions for quoting are meant to make it easier for the reader to identify the quoted voice. When a book is read aloud, these conventions can tip off the reader to change inflection in order to discriminate between voices, but it is often more difficult to follow a dialogue that's read aloud. Adams' text is full of dialogue, and he makes a concentrated effort while reading to discriminate between voices. Usually, this is helpful, and often it fills out the character of the speaker, or enables Adams to convey the emotion of the moment.
The Last Chance CD format allows the reader to access textual personalities from many points of view. When Adams' reads the dialogue of Australian venom expert, Dr. Struan Sutherland, he adopts an exaggerated lower class accent, and speaks so quickly that Sutherland comes off as a rather dubious mad scientist. However, when a sidebar allows access to a recorded interview with the scientist, Sutherland speaks in a measured way with an educated accent. The experience makes the reader/user aware of the number of personalities that can inhabit a text.
There's the Adams' version of Sutherland created for readers of the printed book -this is the Adams' edited version of Sutherland. There's the Sutherland that each reader of the print edition conjures up from Adams' text -the reader's version of Sutherland. There's the Sutherland Adams' evokes when he imitates the scientist's voice -the Adams' edited sound version of Sutherland. There's the Sutherland readers imagine based on Adams' imitation of his voice -a real kook. There's also the Sutherland whose picture we see, and voice we hear when we activate the sidebar interview -who is he? Will the real Dr. Struan Sutherland please stand up?
The CD format allows Adams to include a computer program that he mentions in the text. He calls it a "very neat and sexy program with all sorts of pop-up menus and things"(LCTS, 39). If you were wondering what Adams' idea of sexy program might look like to a user, here's the interface as seen after accessing the program from a sidebar:
Adams' program may not look very sexy compared to the rest of Last Chance, which is in color, but it can calculate the volume of a megapode nest. If you're wondering what a megapode might look like, you can refer to the upper right corner of the window where you can see a profile of the bird partially obscured a stylized megapode nest that looks like a floating gem.
If you were looking at Adams' program from the Last Chance CD right now, the gem & the megapode slogan would be rotating rapidly and you could enter the dimensions of a megapode nest into the handy boxes and then click on the calculate button. You could also see photos of the megapode and learn more about other rare and endangered animals. Of course, you might also really want a piece of software that will allow you to calculate the volume of megapode nests in a hurry. If any of this appeals to you, then Last Chance to See is the multimedia book for you.
Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams & Mark Carwardine, Copyright 1992, Serious Productions, Mark Carwardine, Alain Le Garsmeur and the Multimedia Corporation; Location Recording copyright 1989, BBC Enterprises, is distributed by The Voyager Company: 1351 Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica, California 90401 (310) 451-1383. Also Available for rent($4 for 3 days) and for sale ($59) at Blockbuster. Print editions also available: The Ballantine paperback edition(ISBN: 0-345-37198-4) first published in 1992 is $10.