“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 enables events that are very, very improbable to blossom into reality, 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, to 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 it did deliver the answer, though, after epochs of cogitation, it turned out to be too simple to be true. It was a mere number: 42.
When challenged, it said that the root of the problem was the absence of a true question. It also told them that they’d know what the answer meant once they knew what question to ask.
Could it then tell them what to query? No, but it could direct them to something that it’d conceptualize. “I speak of none other than the computer that is to come after me,” one of such “infinite and subtle complexity that organic life, itself, shall form part of its operational matrix.” So, they themselves would take on new forms and go down into this computer to navigate its program that would run for 10,000,000 years.
It’d be called Earth.
Deep Thought came up with the blueprint for 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.
Now, the question is lost forever and with it, the answer too. What a pity.