Don’t Panic: Towel Day and Britain’s Sci-Fi Festival Scene

By Amanda Castleman

“Thunderbirds.” “Doctor Who.” “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.” UK actors and authors have brought flair to science fiction from “Frankenstein” to “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and beyond. Most recently, “Star Trek Into Darknessbeamed into the UK before opening anywhere else (it hits American theaters May 16). The movie features Londoner Benedict Cumberbatch (PBS’s “Sherlock”) and super-geek Simon Pegg, whose beer-soaked post-apocalyptic “The World’s End” also premieres this summer.

Brits may have deep historical roots, but many of them just can’t stop looking at the stars.

Sci-fi fans celebrated last weekend with events ranging from a convention about the cult comedy “Red Dwarf” to Sci-Fi-London, a festival of film and fiction. But nothing quite exudes as much down-home charm — and, um, funk — as Towel Day, which honors the late Douglas Adams. This Cambridge-born humorist first created the Hitchhiker’s universe for a 1978 BBC radio comedy before it went supernova with a series of novels that sold more than 16 million copies.

In “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Adams wrote that terrycloth “is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. You can wrap it around you for warmth… sleep under it… use it to sail… wet it for 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).”

It also works for signaling distress and drying your body, Adams notes. But most importantly, “a towel has immense psychological value,” because any traveler retaining this essential equipment through difficult odds must be a worthy of respect.

Two weeks after the writer’s death in 2001, readers began drying their tears with a show of solidarity. Now, they fly their towels each May 25. This year, Adams’ hometown will be giving free tours of places associated with the author and his inventions, while talks unfold later in the Cambridge Central Library.

Meanwhile, Oxford is orchestrating a towel-pride flash mob, and both Canterbury and London will host readings to “celebrate geekiness and [the] weapons-grade-terrible poetry” made popular by the series’ slug-like Vogon characters.

But don’t panic if Towel Day passes you by like a thwarted lift into hyperspace. A revived “Hitchhikers” live radio show is touring the UK this autumn (mid-September to late October). And sci-fi events stream through Britain year round:

  • Futura (June 15 in Wolverhampton, just outside Birmingham) brings authors and enthusiasts together for a full day of panels, readings and even a trivia quiz.

  • Nine Worlds (Aug 9-11 in London) is “about gaming, film, cosplay, fandom, literature, science, geek culture, meeting people and having a really big party.”

Or just hold still long enough and the future will find you. As English writer J. G. Ballard once pointed out. “Everything is becoming science fiction.”

Getting there: The national carrier British Airways flies into London and dozens of other UK destinations.