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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Introduction: A Guide To The Guide

Some unhelpful remarks from the author

The history of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is now so complicated that every time I tell it I contradict myself, and whenever I do get it right I'm misquoted. So the publication of this omnibus edition seemed like a good opportunity to set the record straight—or at least firmly crooked. Anything that is put down wrong here is, as far as I'm concerned, wrong for good.

The idea for the title first cropped up while I was lying drunk in a field in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1971. Not particularly drunk, just the sort of drunk you get when you have a couple of stiff Gossers after not having eaten for two days straight, on account of being a penniless hitchhiker. We are talking of a mild inability to stand up.

I was traveling with a copy of the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to Europe by Ken Walsh, a very battered copy that I had borrowed from someone. In fact, since this was 1971 and I still have the book, it must count as stolen by now. I didn't have a copy of Europe on Five Dollars a Day (as it then was) because I wasn't in that financial league.

Night was beginning to fall on my field as it spun lazily underneath me. I was wondering where I could go that was cheaper than Innsbruck, revolved less and didn't do the sort of things to me that Innsbruck had done to me that afternoon. What had happened was this. I had been walking through the town trying to find a particular address, and being thoroughly lost I stopped to ask for directions from a man in the street. I knew this mightn't be easy because I don't speak German, but I was still surprised to discover just how much difficulty I was having communicating with this particular man. Gradually the truth dawned on me as we struggled in vain to understand each other that of all the people in Innsbruck I could have stopped to ask, the one I had picked did not speak English, did not speak French and was also deaf and dumb. With a series of sincerely apologetic hand movements, I disentangled myself, and a few minutes later, on another street, I stopped and asked another man who also turned out to be deaf and dumb, which was when I bought the beers.

I ventured back onto the street. I tried again.

When the third man I spoke to turned out to be deaf and dumb and also blind I began to feel a terrible weight settling on my shoulders; wherever I looked the trees and buildings took on dark and menacing aspects. I pulled my coat tightly around me and hurried lurching down the street, whipped by a sudden gusting wind. I bumped into someone and stammered an apology, but he was deaf and dumb and unable to understand me. The sky loured. The pavement seemed to tip and spin. If I hadn't happened then to duck down a side street and pass a hotel where a convention for the deaf was being held, there is every chance that my mind would have cracked completely and I would have spent the rest of my life writing the sort of books for which Kafka became famous and dribbling.

As it is I went to lie in a field, along with my Hitch Hiker's Guide to Europe, and when the stars came out it occurred to me that if only someone would write a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as well, then I for one would be off like a shot. Having had this thought I promptly fell asleep and forgot about it for six years.

I went to Cambridge University. I took a number of baths—and a degree in English. I worried a lot about girls and what had happened to my bike. Later I became a writer and worked on a lot of things that were almost incredibly successful but in fact just failed to see the light of day. Other writers will know what I mean.

My pet project was to write something that would combine comedy and science fiction, and it was this obsession that drove me into deep debt and despair. No one was interested, except finally one man a BBC radio producer named Simon Brett who had had the same idea, comedy and science fiction. Although Simon only produced the first episode before leaving the BBC to concentrate on his own writing (he is best known in the United Stares for his excellent Charles Paris detective novels), I owe him an immense debt of gratitude for simply getting the thing to happen in the first place. He was succeeded by the legendary Geoffrey Perkins.

In its original form the show was going to be rather different. I was feeling a little disgruntled with the world at the time and had put together about six different plots, each of which ended with the destruction of the world in a different way, and for a different reason. It was to be called “The Ends of the Earth”.

While I was filling in the details of the first plot—in which the Earth was demolished to make way for a new hyperspace express route—I realized that I needed to have someone from another planet around to tell the reader what was going on, to give the story the context it needed. So I had to work out who he was and what he was doing on the Earth.

I decided to call him Ford Prefect. (This was a joke that missed American audiences entirely, of course, since they had never heard of the rather oddly named little car, and many thought it was a typing error for Perfect.) I explained in the text that the minimal research my alien character had done before arriving on this planet had led him to think that this name would be 'nicely inconspicuous.' He had simply mistaken the dominant life form.

So how would such a mistake arise? I remembered when I used to hitchhike through Europe and would often find that the information or advice that came my way was out of date or misleading in some way. Most of it, of course, just came from stories of other people's travel experiences.

At that point the title The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy suddenly popped back into my mind from wherever it had been hiding all this time. Ford, I decided, would be a researcher who collected data for the Guide. As soon as I started to develop this particular notion, it moved inexorably to the center of the story, and the rest, as the creator of the original Ford Prefect would say, is bunk.

The story grew in the most convoluted way, as many people will be surprised to learn. Writing episodically meant that when I finished one episode I had no idea about what the next one would contain. When, in the twists and turns of the plot, some event suddenly seemed to illuminate things that had gone before, I was as surprised as anyone else.

I think that the BBC's attitude toward the show while it was in production was very similar to that which Macbeth had toward murdering people—initial doubts, followed by cautious enthusiasm and then greater and greater alarm at the sheer scale of the undertaking and still no end in sight. Reports that Geoffrey and I and the sound engineers were buried in a subterranean studio for weeks on end, taking as long to produce a single sound effect as other people took to produce an entire series (and stealing everybody else's studio time in which to do so), were all vigorously denied but absolutely true.

The budget of the series escalated to the point that it could have practically paid for a few seconds of Dallas. If the show hadn't worked…

The first episode went out on BBC Radio 4 at 10:30 P.M. on Wednesday, March 8, 1978, in a huge blaze of no publicity at all. Bats heard it. The odd dog barked.

After a couple of weeks a letter or two trickled in. So—someone out there had listened. People I talked to seemed to like Marvin the Paranoid Android, whom I had written in as a one-scene joke and had only developed further at Geoffrey's insistence.

Then some publishers became interested, and I was commissioned by Pan Books in England to write up the series in book form. After a lot of procrastination and hiding and inventing excuses and having baths, I managed to get about two-thirds of it done. At this point they said, very pleasantly and politely, that I had already passed ten deadlines, so would I please just finish the page I was on and let them have the damn thing.

Meanwhile, I was busy trying to write another series and was also writing and script editing the TV series 'Dr. Who,' because while it was all very pleasant to have your own radio series, especially one that somebody had written in to say they had heard, it didn't exactly buy you lunch.

So that was more or less the situation when the book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was published in England in September 1979 and appeared on the Sunday Times mass market best-seller list at number one and just stayed there. Clearly, somebody had been listening.

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