Asking the Right Questions


I believe the second time I read the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series was around when we set the clocks either forward or back, and I thought it would be cool to make that a tradition. Of course it didn’t last, but it does make it appropriate that I’ve been thinking about the series recently. Now, Douglas Adams’ work has been discussed to death and beyond. It seems that everyone on the Internet either has the entire series memorized or has no interest in it whatsoever; it’s rather polarizing that way. Still, perhaps a little background for the issues I’m pondering is in order. In the first book, we learn about a computer called Deep Thought that was built to determine the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. It eventually comes up with forty-two, and explains that it doesn’t make sense unless you know the Question.

To this end, Deep Thought designs another computer in the form of a planet, which turns out to be our own Earth. Unfortunately, the planet is destroyed five minutes before its program is completed, allegedly to make way for a new hyperspace bypass, but actually due to the lobbying of a consortium of psychiatrists who feared that knowledge of the meaning of life would cost them their jobs. According to the first book’s introduction, the final part of the program was likely “a girl sitting alone in a small café in Rickmansworth,” who figured out “how the world could be made a good and happy place,” but the planet was destroyed before she could tell anyone.

In So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, we finally learn that this woman is named Fenchurch, and she and Arthur Dent are romantically involved until she disappears during a hyperspace jump. The thing is, in Mostly Harmless, we learn that there are alternate versions of Earth that were never destroyed, due to the planet’s location in one of the Galaxy’s Plural Zones. I’m guessing that the creators put it there on purpose so they’d have backups of a sort. The Vogons eventually destroy these other Earths as well, but it takes several years, and the program was supposed to only have five minutes left. So why was the Question never determined?

Adams leaves himself several outs here. One is that there isn’t necessarily one official story for the series, as it started out as a radio show and later became an album, a computer game, a low-budget BBC-TV production, and a long-awaited but not all that successful feature film. All of these versions have a lot in common, including the whole thing about Earth being a computer built to determine the Question for which forty-two is the Answer, but they’re not entirely consistent in all respects. But even just sticking to the books, there’s a character named Prak in Life, the Universe, and Everything who’s given an overdose of truth serum and starts to tell the truth about everything, including stuff he’d have no logical way of knowing. When Arthur asks him about the Question, he says that no one in the same universe could know both the Question and the Answer, and the two would cancel each other out if anyone did. So maybe some versions of the Earth DID complete the program, but because of this it was to no avail. And in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Arthur and Ford Prefect end up on a prehistoric Earth with a bunch of people who were sent away from the planet Golgafrincham because they were considered useless, including . hairdressers, insurance salesman, advertising executives, and television producers. They try to set up a new society, but are too busy burning down forests and holding committee meetings to actually accomplish anything.

Picture by Jonathan Burton
Ford speculates that the Golgafrinchans are the ancestors of humanity, and since they were alien to the planet, they wouldn’t have been part of the computer program. When Arthur tries to use a subconscious method to determine the Question, which Marvin the Paranoid Android says he can see in Arthur’s brainwaves, all he comes up with is “What do you get when you multiply six by nine?”, which not only isn’t accurate (except in base thirteen, which Adams has said was not intentional), but doesn’t sound remotely like anything that could give life meaning. Even if the Golgafrinchans aren’t the ancestors of humanity (remember, it’s Ford who comes up with this idea, and he takes every possible opportunity to insult humans), or if the program managed to incorporate them, there are all kinds of other things that could have gone wrong.

Also worth examining is Fenchurch herself. When Arthur meets her, she’s forgotten what she came up with. It turns out that the Earth on which this happens was pulled into space-time from “the implications of enfolded time” by the dolphins, who had left the planet before its destruction but maintained a fondness for humanity. This might well have affected the program in some way, perhaps even resetting it, which is why Fenchurch can’t remember her revelation. On the other hand, when she sees God’s Final Message to His Creation on the planet Preliumtarn, which turns out to simply be “We apologize for the inconvenience,” she says, “Yes, that was it.”

Picture source
So was this actually what she’d come up with, rather than the Question? We don’t know if there’s any connection between the Final Message and the Question and Answer, but if Fenchurch did manage to remember the latter based on the former, it could explain why she disappeared. Okay, we already have the explanation that hyperspace travel is dangerous for beings from the Plural Zones and the one that the universe has it in for Arthur, but still. By the way, in the radio version of the last two books, the Earth retrieved by the dolphins is the same as the one on which Tricia McMillan didn’t go off with Zaphod Beeblebrox and instead became a reporter, but the books give no indication of this. Frankly, it’s a change I liked, as otherwise there’s no real way to explain why the Earth in So Long disappeared in the next book other than Adams’ own orneriness.

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