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'Hitchhiker's Guide' Makes Leap From Fiction to Fact

April 26, 2001|ROBERT NILES | robert.niles@latimes.com

Don't panic.

The ultimate guide to life, the universe and everything has crossed over from fiction into reality. BBC Online is offering an "Earth Edition" of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" at http://www.bbc.co.uk/h2g2.

The site offers a searchable directory of articles and discussions on thousands of subjects, from the Third Street Promenade to a history of Celtic languages. The entries, written by volunteers from around the world, often display the same cheeky attitude that made Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide" novels popular with science fiction fans. "The guide in the books is a wireless PDA, hooked into a universewide network that's full of information," explained Mark Moxon, the site's editor. Such a guide might have seemed fantastic in 1979, when Adams' first "Hitchhiker's" book was published, but today Moxon and his staff are building a real one.

Adams' books spoofed the absurdities of science fiction, riffing on imagined extraterrestrial oddities, such as a planet inhabited by lost ballpoint pens and fish you drop in your ear to translate alien languages.

The central element of the novels was a make-believe guide to the universe, imprinted with the reassuring words "Don't Panic" in large letters on its cover.

Adams' original guide didn't have much to say about Earth, actually, reducing the entire planet to a single, two-word entry: "Mostly harmless." The online guide, called "h2g2," offers considerably more detail.

The site organizes its articles by topic, much like Yahoo or About.com. Many articles focus on destinations, as one might expect from a site inspired by an intergalactic travel guide. But most focus on non-travel topics, such as hobbies, politics, religion and fashion. Articles include a variety of background information, tips and personal opinions.

People who register with h2g2 are dubbed "researchers" and can write articles, comment on others', keep a public online journal or post messages on the site's many message boards.

The site has signed up more than 75,000 researchers, who collectively submit about 100 articles a day, according to Moxon.

So why the cryptic handle "h2g2?"

Adams explained in a recent BBC Online chat that it's the H and the H from Hitchhiker and the G and the G from Guide to the Galaxy, rendered as a chemical formula.

"It's also a sort of nod to R2-D2 from Star Wars," he added, continuing, "The thing was we needed a short URL, which hitchhikersguidetothegalaxy.com was not."

Southern California elicits several barbs on the site.

One entry describes Los Angeles as "a quilt. There are very pretty gold lame panels sewn next to greasy burlap." It also notes the relative lack of skyscrapers in downtown L.A. but claims that "these have been strategically located to make approaches to L.A. International Airport more adventurous."

An entry on the Inland Empire cuts deeper: "Some people live the California dream, and others just dream it. Those who are caught in between live in the Inland Empire, a grandiose name for an area completely devoid of any of the things that make California fun to live in."

The guide's central London home does not escape criticism either: "London can turn even the most mild-mannered pedestrian into a frothing psychopath. . . . Far from being paved with gold, as legend has it, the streets are strewn with rubbish of all descriptions, from burger boxes to hypodermic needles."

Not all of the guide is so caustic. President Bush's decision not to implement the Kyoto treaty on emission controls has inspired an earnest, and popular, debate on one of the site's message boards. Another board features an impassioned discussion about religious tolerance.

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Robert Niles is a content producer for latimes.com.

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