In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitchhiker's Guide has already supplanted the great 'Encyclopedia 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 encyclopaedia 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 encyclopaedia 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 only 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' novels1, 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 Encyclopaedia. 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 Encyclopaedia, the Fundamental Knowledge System, which accumulates, sorts, keeps in order and renders available everything that is known. The Encyclopaedia organisation, which centres upon Barcelona, with its seventeenth 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 encyclopaedia a fundamental part of this vision. The existence of an encyclopaedia and shared knowledge creates a self-perpetuating utopia with more and more people contributing to its creation.
Isaac Asimov: Foundation
Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) 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 Robots2, 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 1942-1951, compiled into three books in the early 1950s3, 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 psychohistory4, 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 encyclopaedia, the Encyclopedia 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 Encyclopedia Galactica with the words,
I want to create a great Encyclopaedia, containing within it all the knowledge humanity will need to rebuild itself in case the worst happens, an 'Encyclopedia 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 1942-1993, knowledge was still predominantly held in libraries – in many cases with only one copy of texts surviving. His Encyclopedia Galactica is a way of copying, compiling and preserving a selected highlight of the most vital knowledge needed to rebuild civilisation. It is later shown that this claim is a ruse and compiling an Encyclopaedia is not Seldon's primary or even secondary aim, but the encyclopaedia 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 encyclopaedia had been working on it for 50 years and readers even learn that the 116th edition of the Encyclopedia Galactica is published a mere 1,020 years after Seldon's death.
The Foundation series contains many extracts from the Encyclopedia Galactica as introductions to characters and places, but the Encyclopedia Galactica itself is not without criticism. Second Foundation short story 'Search by the Mule' (1948) contains the passage,
There is much more that the Encyclopaedia 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 Encyclopaedia and continue on our own path.
Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Here's what the Encyclopaedia 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 Encyclopaedia Galactica.
Douglas Adams (1952-2001), writing between the 1970s and 1990s, has three different encyclopaedic works mentioned in his most famous series, which was originally conceived for radio but later expanded into a series of novels, a television series and eventually a film5. Like Asimov, he criticises the Encyclopedia Galactica for being a dull, dry text. 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 encyclopaedia 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 from one of the researchers, is never mentioned again.
The aim of the fictional 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 Encyclopedia Galactica of Asimov's Foundation series where compiling the definitive encyclopaedia of all human knowledge takes over a millennia, 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 simply a guide book 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 Encyclopedia 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 synthesized 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 in the series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has 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 was 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.
There is an open debate about to what extent Isaac Asimov influenced Douglas Adams. Did he deliberately use the name 'Encyclopedia 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 encyclopaedia 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 Cybernetics (a company with the same initials), 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.
So for HG Wells an encyclopaedia was the symbol of a utopian future. For Asimov it represented a way to save civilisation from 30,000 years of barbarism, while for Douglas Adams it was all about where to get the best drinks in your local area. Yet curiously one common factor for both Asimov and Adams is that an encyclopaedia has a limited size. To us in the 21st Century it is inconceivable that encyclopaedic websites such as Wikipedia or h2g2 would have a limited wordcount and would not be able to keep expanding forever, including contributions from potentially millions of people as in Wells' Great Encyclopaedia.