The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Encyclopaedia Galactica Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Encyclopaedia Galactica

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In many of the more relaxed civilisations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitchhiker's Guide has already supplanted the great 'Encyclopædia Galactica' as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom. For though it has many omissions, and contains much which is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper. And second, it has the words 'DON'T PANIC' printed in large friendly letters on its cover.
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

In the first century following the creation of the genre of science fiction, the role of the Encyclopædia containing all worldly knowledge has undergone a radical shift. Initially seen as a worthwhile goal that celebrates human achievement, they have since been portrayed as a way of saving civilisation, finding a good spot for a drink and even threatening reality as we know it. So how has the concept of an Encyclopædia1 changed so radically, and has this been as a result of the increasingly ease in which people can access knowledge thanks to the invention of the Internet? For access to knowledge in a way that only the remit of science fiction could have imagined just a generation ago, is now taken for granted.

HG Wells: The Shape of Things To Come (1933)

The Shape of Things To Come is a prophetic science fiction work by HG Wells (1866-1946). Unlike his more famous and earlier 'scientific romance' novels2, which led to his frequently being called 'the father of science fiction', it is a serious work written to contain social and political messages. In it and through the fictional author 'Dr Philip Raven' he attempts to predict the course of the future between 1929 and 2106.

While Wells' predictions have enjoyed various degrees of accuracy, one of the final sections deals with the creation of the great Encyclopædia. This is seen as a collective brain, a fundamental knowledge system which accumulates, orders and sorts, absolutely everything known. This acts as the Memory of Mankind and is the great repository of all human knowledge, which could be considered a prediction of things such as h2g2, Wikipedia or search engines. Wells describes this with the words:

There also appears a collective Brain, the Encyclopædia, the Fundamental Knowledge System, which accumulates, sorts, keeps in order and renders available everything that is known. The Encyclopædia organisation, which centres upon Barcelona, with its seventeenth [sic] million active workers, is the Memory of Mankind. Its tentacles spread out in one direction to millions of investigators, checkers and correspondents, and in another to keep the educational process in living touch with mental advance. It is growing rapidly as the continual advance in productive efficiency liberates fresh multitudes of multitudes of workers for its services. The mental mechanism of mankind is as yet only in its infancy.
- The Shape of Things To Come: Book the Fifth: The Modern State in Control of Life – 2059 to New Year's Day 2106 - Chapter 7

After periods of war and dictatorship, HG Wells finally envisions a future in which the working class use knowledge to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to create a utopian meritocracy in which the world is populated by polymath intellectuals and geniuses who are able to indulge in the pursuit of knowledge and art, with the Encyclopædia a fundamental part of this vision. The existence of an Encyclopædia and shared knowledge creates a self-perpetuating utopia with more and more people contributing to its creation.

Isaac Asimov: Foundation

Isaac Asimov (1920-92) was one of the most prolific and successful authors of science fiction of the 20th Century. Initially writing short stories for pulp magazines, he is best known for his short stories about Robots3, collected in anthologies such as The Complete Robot.

One of his most famous works is his Foundation series, which began as a series of nine short stories published 1942-51, compiled into three books in the early 1950s4, and later continued as further novels in the 1980s. Set in a galaxy-wide benevolent human empire, the initial premise is that a character named Hari Seldon, like HG Wells' character Dr Raven in The Shape of Things To Come, is able to predict the future. In a nod to Wells, Seldon is even nicknamed 'Raven Seldon' for predicting the fall of the empire. Seldon is able to predict the future of cultures (though not individuals) with pinpoint accuracy due to a science he created named psychohistory5, and predicts that the Empire is about to collapse and will be followed by a 30,000 year 'Dark Age' before civilisation re-establishes itself. However, by creating an Encyclopædia, the Encyclopædia Galactica, and thus preserving inside it the knowledge of mankind and spreading copies across the galaxy, Seldon states that the dark age will instead only last one thousand years. In Asimov's posthumous prequel novel Forward the Foundation (1993), Seldon describes planning the Encyclopædia Galactica with the words:

I want to create a great Encyclopædia, containing within it all the knowledge humanity will need to rebuild itself in case the worst happens, an 'Encyclopædia Galactica', if you will... The provincial libraries scattered over the Galaxy may themselves be destroyed and, if not, all but the most local data is obtained by computerised connection with the [central] Galactic Library in any case. What I intend, then, is something that is entirely independent and that contains, in as concise a form as possible, the essential information humanity needs.

For Asimov, writing between 1942-93, knowledge was still predominantly held in libraries – in many cases with only one copy of a text surviving. Even as late as 1988 while predicting the creation of the public internet, he still conceived it as a way that anyone would have free access to limited content kept in libraries, rather than able to create their own user-generated pages, writing:

Once we have computer outlets in every home, each of them hooked up to enormous libraries, where you can ask any question and be given answers, you can look up something you're interested in knowing, however silly it might seem to someone else.

His Encyclopædia Galactica is a way of copying, compiling and preserving a selected highlight of the most vital knowledge held in the galaxy's libraries that will be needed to rebuild civilisation. It is later shown that this claim is a ruse and compiling an Encyclopædia is not Seldon's primary or even secondary aim, but the Encyclopædia nevertheless plays a part in saving humanity. The first short story in the series to be published was titled 'The Encyclopedists' in May 1942. Found in the later compiled novel Foundation, this informs readers that the writers of the Encyclopædia had been working on it for 50 years and readers even learn that the 116th edition of the Encyclopædia Galactica is published a mere 1,020 years after Seldon's death.

The Foundation series contains many extracts from the Encyclopædia Galactica as introductions to characters and places, but the Encyclopædia Galactica itself is not without criticism. Second Foundation short story 'Search by the Mule' (1948) contains the passage:

There is much more that the Encyclopædia has to say on the subject... but almost all of it is not germane to the issue at immediate hand, and most of it is considerably too dry for our purposes in any case... We therefore abandon the Encyclopædia and continue on our own path.

Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Here's what the Encyclopædia Galactica has to say about alcohol. It says that alcohol is a colourless volatile liquid formed by the fermentation of sugars, and also notes its intoxicating effect on certain carbon-based life forms. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy also mentions alcohol. It says that the best drink in existence is the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster... The Guide also tells you on which planets the best Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters are mixed, how much you can expect to pay for one and what voluntary organisations exist to help you rehabilitate afterwards...
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy sells rather better than the Encyclopædia Galactica.

Douglas Adams (1952-2001), writing between the 1970s and 1990s, has three different reference works that, at first glance, broadly fall into the 'Encyclopædia' category mentioned in his most famous series6. This was originally conceived for radio, but later expanded into a series of novels, a television series and eventually a film. Like Asimov, he criticises the Encyclopædia Galactica for being a dull, dry text, unlike the far more exciting guidebook, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Just as Asimov's original aim for his series is to tell the 1,000-year story of the fall and rise of the galactic civilisation through the creation of an Encyclopædia and its creator, Harry Seldon, the radio series opens by informing listeners that:

To tell the story of the Book, it's best to tell the story of some of the minds behind it. A human, from the planet Earth, was one of them… His name is Arthur Dent.

The idea that Arthur Dent was one of the creators who conceived the Guide, rather than merely someone who borrows a copy, is never mentioned again.

The aim of the fictional The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is simply to sell well and make Megadodo Publications rich. Rather than having the grand aim of preserving all humanity's knowledge as accurately and effectively as possible, we learn that:

'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' is an indispensable companion to all those who are keen to make sense of life in an infinitely complex and confusing universe. For though it cannot hope to be useful or informative on all matters, it does make the reassuring claim that where it is inaccurate, it is at least definitively inaccurate. In cases of major discrepancy, it is always reality that's got it wrong.

Also unlike the Encyclopædia Galactica of Asimov's Foundation series where compiling the definitive Encyclopædia of all human knowledge takes over a millennium, with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy we are told:

Its editors, having to meet a publishing deadline, copied [some] information off the back of a packet of breakfast cereal, hastily embroidering it with a few footnotes in order to avoid prosecution under the incomprehensibly torturous Galactic Copyright Laws. It's interesting to note that a later and wilier editor sent the book backwards in time, through a temporal warp, and then successfully sued the breakfast cereal company for infringement of the same laws.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a guidebook that provides a handy tool for travellers wanting nothing more complicated than to know where they can find good – preferably cheap - places to visit, eat and sleep on a trip across the universe. Like Asimov's Encyclopædia Galactica the Guide aims to be concise, as the entry on Earth consists simply of two words: 'Mostly Harmless'. The publishers, Megadodo Publications, appear at first to be incredibly successful as in the Secondary Phase of the radio series we are informed that the publishers have a big white city of:

Hitchhiker's offices... Palm trees, and so many swimming pools you need a... gondola to get about. They've created a whole electronically synthesised universe in one of their offices so they can go and research stories during the day and still go to parties in the evening.

Despite this, by the final book Mostly Harmless (1992), Megadodo Publications have been taken over by new owners, the Vogons, who have published the sentient Guide Mark II. Unlike a book written to describe the world around it, the Guide Mark II is created to change reality to fit its purpose. Instead of preserving knowledge and humanity's legacy, the Guide Mark II's aim is to destroy the Earth in all conceivable dimensions.

Asimov and Adams

There is an open debate about to what extent Isaac Asimov influenced Douglas Adams7. Did he deliberately use the name 'Encyclopædia Galactica' in homage to Asimov, or was it just both used the same logic for finding a name for a galaxy-wide equivalent of the Encyclopædia Britannica, the definitive English language Encyclopædia that has been published since 1768? There are certainly shades of Asimov that seem parodied by Adams, such as Asimov's robots created by Susan Calvin spoofed by robots created by Sirius Cybernetics8 and both Adams and Asimov use terms such as 'sub-ether' and 'hyperspace'. In Asimov's story 'The Last Question' (1956) the computer Multivac spends 10 trillion years computing the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything before concluding the answer is 'Let there be light', just like computer Deep Thought would later spend 10 million years computing the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything before concluding the answer was 42.

An interview for The Guardian newspaper asked Adams this directly:

Had you been keen on science fiction before, was it your thing?
Adams: Yes and no. I've started most science fiction books but only got to about page 10, I'm afraid, usually.
So Hitchhiker's got rather more to do with 'Monty Python' than it has Asimov?
DA: In a way I think so, yes. Python was a huge, huge influence on me. Python sketches would create a new world, with a new set of rules. That really was the line I was taking. Let's start out with a world that has certain rules and just see where that goes in the long run. Something that starts out as a silly idea actually has to have consequences in the real world.

Starship Titanic

Curiously the 2021 radio adaptation of Terry Jones' novelisation of Douglas Adams' Starship Titanic computer game features Michael Palin as the Encyclopædia Galactica. This describes The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as a 'lesser publication'9. This is despite the Encyclopædia not featuring in the novel. In the radio adaptation the Encyclopædia plays essentially the same role as The Book in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. This radio play had been adapted by Ian Billings and directed by Dirk Maggs, who had directed the final four phases in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series, and also co-stars Simon Jones.


So, for HG Wells an Encyclopædia was the symbol of a utopian future. For Asimov it represented a way to save civilisation from 30,000 years of barbarism. In Douglas Adams' fictional universe it was a handy plot device that, like a tricorder or sonic screwdriver, can be flexibly adapted to fit whatever situation it finds itself in. However, it was primarily used by official Guide Researcher Ford Prefect to find out where to get the best drinks wherever he ended up. Yet curiously, one common factor for both Asimov and Adams is that an Encyclopædia has a size limit of some form. To us in the 21st Century it is inconceivable that encyclopædic websites would have a limited wordcount and would not be able to keep expanding forever, including contributions from potentially millions of people, echoing Wells' Great Encyclopædia.


This leads us onto the h2g2 website, which is a real embodiment of the fictional concept. The aim of h2g2 is to be a Guide and not an Encyclopædia. While an Encyclopædia usually strives for dry and dusty tonal neutrality verging on snobbish disapproval, the aim of a Guide is to contain many voices and many perspectives, embracing plurality and different perspectives as long as the Guide's guidelines are met.

h2g2 is a Guide that embraces and celebrates the sense of sharing, with the underlying messages:

I know something, let me be your guide to that.

And of course,

Don't Panic
1For consistency the spelling used throughout is 'Encyclopædia' though it should be noted that three different spellings have been used by different companies, for example Asimov's Foundation series has used both 'Encyclopedia' and 'Encyclopaedia'.2The Island of Doctor Moreau (1892), The Time Machine (1895), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898) and The First Men in the Moon (1901).3Asimov is credited with creating the term 'Robotics' and creating the Three Laws of Robotics, designed to make it impossible for robots to harm humans.4Foundation, Foundation and Empire and thirdly Second Foundation.5The sociological theory of Functionalism which attempted to explain society was at its peak during the period in which Asimov was writing.6To avoid confusion to differentiate the fictional interactive book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy from the radio/television/film/novel series of the same name, the works of fiction will always be called The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. If the word 'Series' is not used, the entry is referring to the fictional Guide.7Of course Adams had many other influences also, such as Venus on the Half-Shell.8A company which interestingly has the same initials.9The idea behind Starship Titanic had evolved out of a footnote joke in the novel Life, the Universe and Everything.

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