Douglas Adams's
(Starship Titanic Logo)

At the centre of the galaxy, a vast, unknown civilization is preparing for an event of epic proportions, the launch of the greatest, most gorgeous, most technocologically advanced spaceship ever built - the Starship Titanic.

An Earthling would see the ship as something, really, really big, but rather less provincial onlookers would recognize it as the design of Leovinus, the galaxy's most renowned architect. Before the launch Leovinus is having one last little look around and begins to find that things just aren't right; poor workmanship, cybersystems out of control, robots walking into doors. How could this have happened? The Starship Titanic is THE SHIP THAT CANNOT POSSIBLY GO WRONG ...

While the galaxy's media looks on the following morning, hugely, magnificently, the fabulous ship eases away from the construction dock, picks up speed, sways a little, wobbles a bit, veers wildly and just before it can do untold damage to everything around it, appears to undergo SMEF (Spontaneous Massive Existence Failure). In just ten seconds, the whole stupendous enterprise is over. And our story has just begun ...

(From the book cover.)

In 1998, The Digital Village and Simon & Schuster released Starship Titanic as both a computer game and a novel. While the game idea and much of the design comes from the mind of Douglas Adams, the book was written by Monty Python member Terry Jones (a fact that was easily mixed up, since Douglas's name is, on the book cover, bigger than Terry's).

The novel used the game's idea of Starship Titanic, full with amok running cyberbeings, crashing into into your house and taking you with it, only this time it is not you solving the game's mysteries, but they're solved for you.

Anyway, back then, you could at one point in time download the entire novel. It started like:

Starship Titanic: The Novel!
(next page)
by Terry Jones!
(next page)
Now available online!
(next page)
The whole text!
(next page)
Every single word!
(next page)
In Alphabetical Order!

True to their word, the next link took you to the first of 30 pages, with all the words of the novel in alphabetical order. On the first page, you get a lot of a's, which seems to be a pretty popular word in english. They did, however, leave all the punctuation in place while sorting the words.

You could browse through the entire novel that way, by clicking on the "Next" button 28 times, eventually arriving at the 29th page with a lot of words starting with y. Apparently, they did not expect many readers to get this far.

When clicking on the "Last page" button, however, you were in for a surprise. Instead of a page with a lot of words starting with z, you got a message that said, "Aha! Thought we'd give away the ending that easily, did you?"

They then announced a competition, for which you had to come up with solutions to two problems. First, you had to guess the conclusion, i.e. all words that were to go on the last page, and second, you had to write a program that re-engineered the novel from the alphabetized form. The first prize in the competition was to be a copy of the Starship Titanic novel, signed by both Douglas and Terry.

They probably figured that the first part was difficult enough. It might be possible to figure them out by reverse engineering, which they disqualified. But even in the unlikely case, the second part would certainly take care of everyone who got lucky on the first one. And finally, they never mention an address to send the solutions to.

So their scheme appeared to be foolproof. But, in Douglas's own words, a common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools. (From Mostly Harmless.) So here I am.

Of course, I was completely lost on the first part, but I made an intelligent guess by copying all 10 entries for the letter 'z' in my English-German pocket dictionary; the list ran "zeal zebra zenith zero zest zigzag zip zodiac zone zoo." I figured that this might be a nice conclusion to all that was going on before.

I took the second part somewhat more seriously. After much research, I eventually wrote a program that will take any alphabetised text as input and then determine and print the original novel. Eventually. Well, in fact, the program produced all possible combinations of all the words. Obviously, the original text must be one of the legal permutations.

I did not check whether this actually worked, but instead I tried to compute the total number of permutations. Obviously, for an input of n words, the total number of permutations is n!, i.e. the factorial of n. It gets a little more difficult, since some words are used more than once. If a word is repeated twice, half of the total permutations are not unique. So you have to divide the total number of permutations by the product of all factorials of the cardinalities of all words. Some knowledge of statistics and combination theory is definitely helpful here.

Anyway, I concluded that a total 51673 words, of which 6566 are unique, result in a mere 1.71696200256 * 10^146445 but that according to statistics, you would find the correct permutation about halfway through.

I mailed the program and the results to the heads at TDV on February 4, 1998, and heard no more of it. I complained about it at the end of march, and then again on June 5. This time, I got a reaction from them asking for a copy of the original mail. After not hearing from them again, I decided to forget about it, too.

There's a happy end to this story after all, because on July 27, 1998, I finally got a reply notifying me of having won the contest, with the explanation that I had been reflecting about all the time, that they never intended anyone to participate.

But they were fair after all, and did send me a signed copy of the novel. However, because I was plain wrong on the first part (the remaining words of the novel), it was only signed by Douglas, and not by Terry.

The signature reads, "To Frank, Best wishes, D... A..." (unintelligble, I guess it's supposed to read Douglas Adams). It goes on, "(Terry Jones refused to sign it on the grounds that he had actually written it)"

I read the novel, but found it to be a lot less entertaining than most other work that wears Douglas's name, and certainly worse than his own works. Still, this book will always have a special place on my bookshelf, as a reminder of this weird competition.

June 2005 update: the original novel is again online on the otherwise-empty Starship Titanic.

Frank Pilhofer <fp -AT-> Back to the Homepage
Last modified: Sun Jun 3 17:40:00 2001