“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” by Douglas Adams (“H2G2” for short)—is a comic science-fiction, which has very little to do with the exploration of the Milky Way. But it has, it claims, in the more “relaxed civilizations” in the galaxy, replaced Isaac Asimov’s Encyclopedia Galactica “as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom.”
At the core of that body of “knowledge” is the story of how Earth was destroyed.
It happens on a Thursday and is heralded by the arrival of a yellow bulldozer. Soon after it tears down a small home in rural England to make way for a bypass, a fleet of yellow space bulldozers demolishes Earth to make way for a cosmic expressway that’d pass through our solar system.
Before the planet is reduced to rubble, its only human survivor and his buddy—an alien from Betelgeuse, but living in England—sneak into a Vogon spacecraft as stowaways. After they’re thrown overboard, they get picked up by the Heart of Gold, a vessel powered by the Infinite Improbability Drive, which enables it to travel faster than light. But it does more than that. It makes things that are very, very improbable happen, such as morph two nuclear missiles into a sperm whale and a bowl of petunia.
It also takes them to Magrathea, a legendary planet deep in the Horsehead Nebula, in the business of making planets: some of gold, some of platinum, some of rubber. It’s been asleep for eons, far longer than Rip Van Winkle, so that it could tide over economic recession.
There, they learn the story of how Earth was created.
Far back in the mists of ancient time, there lived a race of supremely intelligent beings who got so fed up with the relentless bickering about the meaning of “life, universe and everything” that they decided to build a supremely intelligent computer—Deep Thought—which would calculate the answer to the ultimate “Question of Life, the Universe and Everything.” When, however, it delivered the answer, after epochs of cogitation, it turned out to be too simple to be true. It was a mere number: 42.
When challenged, it said, the root of the problem was the absence of a true question: “So, once you do know what the question actually is, you’ll know what the answer means.”
Could it then tell them what to query? No, but it could direct them to someone who could: “I speak of none other than the computer that is to come after me … a computer whose merest operational parameters I am not worthy to calculate—and yet I will design it for you.” “[It’ll be a computer] of such infinite and subtle complexity that organic life, itself, shall form part of its operational matrix. And you yourselves shall take on new forms and go down into the computer to navigate its 10-million-year program.” “And it shall be called . . . The Earth.”
Deep Thought designed Earth. The Magratheans built it. We lived on it. And the Vogons came and destroyed it merely five minutes before the program could be completed. What a pity.