The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Summary
The super short version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is, well, weird stuff happens to Arthur Dent, regular Earth-person. But the real joy of this book is in the weird stuff; and there's so much of it that we can't even capture it all.
The longer short version starts when Arthur's house gets torn down so a road can be built—and his day goes downhill from there. His friend Ford Prefect is an alien. That's actually the good news of the day, because it's Ford who can save both of them when the alien Vogons come to destroy the Earth to make way for some sort of space road. Ford and Arthur hitch a ride with the Vogon ship's cooks. Unfortunately, the Vogons don't like hitchhikers, so Arthur and Ford get thrown out of the spaceship to die in the cold void of interstellar space, where not even Starbucks exists.
Meanwhile, Ford's semi-cousin Zaphod Beeblebrox and his human companion Trillian steal the Heart of Gold spaceship, which has an amazing engine that can do all sorts of improbable things, such as get through LA without dealing with traffic. Also on the spaceship is a very depressed robot named Marvin. When Zaphod and Marvin use the Improbability Drive, they end up picking up Ford and Arthur on their way to the mythical planet of Magrathea.
Magrathea was a planet that made other planets for rich people (the cosmic 1%), but it disappeared a while ago. Zaphod isn't even totally sure why he wants to find it, but that's because his brain doesn't work properly. When he does find the planet, it seems dead—but it isn't. Zaphod, Ford, and Trillian go exploring inside the planet, while Arthur and Marvin are left on the surface. It's then that this dude from Magrathea named Slartibartfast finds Arthur and tells him the truth about Earth.
So, get this: Earth was actually a giant computer created to find the question that would give meaning to life. The people who ordered Earth already have the answer to the meaning of life, and that answer is: 42. The only trouble is that they're not sure what the question is that "42" answers. But they're pretty sure they can get it by chopping up Arthur's brain, since he was a part of the Earth-computer, and he was there at the end.
Arthur and his friends escape—even though the cops are after them after Zaphod stole the Heart of Gold—and decide to go get a bite to eat.
- The introduction does what it promises: it introduces.
- It introduces us to an unimportant planet (Earth) with primitive people who are never happy (us).
- Then it introduces us to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which is described as an amazing book that has sold a lot of copies. Why?
- Because it's cheaper than more reputable encyclopedias; and it has the words "Don't Panic" written on the front.
- It also introduces us to a terrible, no good, very bad catastrophe. This book is the story of that catastrophe.
- Finally, the introduction introduces us to a house, but don't get attached to the house.
- The house introduced in the introduction is owned by Arthur Dent, who is a totally normal human being. That is, just like the rest of us, his house is in the way of a planned road that the local government wants to build.
- In fact, Arthur starts off the day with a hangover, just like the rest of u…wait, what?, because he was down at the pub last night, drinking and complaining about how the local government wants to bulldoze his house.
- Which explains why there are bulldozers outside his house right now.
- So, Arthur goes out and lies down in front of a bulldozer. Pretty much your average Thursday.
- The man in charge of the bulldozers is Mr. L. Prosser, who is a distant descendant of Genghis Khan.
- Like Genghis Khan, Prosser has a bit of a belly and likes fur hats. Unlike Genghis Khan, Prosser is nervous and not so good at conquering.
- Prosser tries to convince Arthur to let them destroy his house (just this once, pretty please), but Arthur refuses.
- Arthur complains that the government did a terrible job of making their plans known. A letter would've been nice. Instead, Arthur had to go down to the local planning office, all the way to the cellar (even though the lights and the stairs were not working), and find the plans in "a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory [bathroom] with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard'" (40).
- And the rest of the book is just the two of them arguing. No, that's not true. But before we hear what happens (do they fall in love? do they murder each other?), we get a long digression telling us all about Arthur's friend Ford Prefect.
- We get a pretty in-depth description of Ford here, which is too bad if you are waiting to hear what happens to Arthur and Prosser. We'll just sum up the description by noting that "There was something very slightly odd about him, but it was difficult to say what it was" (1.56).
- For instance, he makes fun of astrophysicists at parties he's not invited to, and sometimes he stares up at the night sky, looking for UFOs. See, he's slightly odd.
- As the book explains, Ford is actually an alien, which was probably clearer to the British audience since "Ford Prefect" was a line of Ford cars around the 1940s-1960s over there—pretty cute cars, if you ask us.
- Ford's actually a researcher for the Hitchhiker's Guide, but he's been stranded on Earth far too long. Who doesn't feel that way sometimes?
- So, we move back to Arthur and Prosser, who are still stalemated regarding the relative importance of houses and bypass roads. Ford enters the scene.
- Ford wants Arthur to go to the pub with to hear some amazing news. Arthur refuses to move because of the bulldozers, so Ford does the only logical thing: he gets Prosser to agree to lie in the mud in front of the bulldozer.
- So, instead of bulldozing the house, Prosser is now in the position of preserving the house, making it possible for Arthur and Ford to the pub and get that stiff drink.
- Arthur isn't sure they can trust Prosser, but Ford assures him they can trust him till the end of the Earth—that'll be about twelve minutes from now.
- Chapter 2 starts out with a comparison between the Encyclopedia Galactica, which gives a very dry definition of alcohol; and the Hitchhiker's Guide, which gives the recipe for the best alcoholic drink ever: the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.
- Drinking a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster is like "having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick" (3). Hitchhiker's Guide kindly supplies this recipe, which may be why it is such a popular book.
- Ford orders a huge amount of beer, which is how they do it over there in England. He explains to Arthur that they'll need the beer as "muscle relaxant," a line we've never used before but really ought to try.
- Ford explains—and you should get used to Ford explaining things to Arthur—that he's an alien from Betelgeuse and the world is about to end. Just your average English pub talk.
- We zoom out to see that alien ships are coming to Earth. For a picnic? Unfortunately, no.
- Only Ford has a "Sub-Etha Sens-O-Matic" device that tells him when aliens are coming, so only Ford is prepared for the destruction of Earth. Has he taken out insurance on Earth? No, but he's got his towel.
- This leads to one of the most important digressions in this very digressive book. The whole digression is all about how important towels are when one is hitchhiking across the galaxy. That's why, in the real world, May 25th is a memorial to Douglas Adams called "Towel Day".
- Back on Earth, Prosser destroys Arthur's house. This makes Arthur threaten to kill all of them—or as the British say, this makes Arthur rather cross.
- Also, while no one at the pub believes Ford about the destruction of Earth, the barman gets an eerie feeling and asks if there's anything that can be done. Can they heroically fight off the aliens like in Independence Day? Or make friends with the aliens like in E.T.? No, they cannot, says Ford.
- But Ford does ask the barman for some peanuts, so the barman isn't totally useless.
- Around this time, the alien ships show up and freak everyone out, probably because the ships are yellow. Or, as they say in England, yellow.
- Only Ford isn't freaking out about the Vogon aliens, because he knows where his towel is.
- The Vogons alert the people on Earth that their planet has to be destroyed to make way for a "hyperspatial express route." Hey, that's pretty much why Arthur's house had to be torn down, right?
- In fact, the leader of the Vogons, Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz, uses the same arguments that Prosser used: you should have known about these plans, no use complaining now, the march of progress, blah blah blah.
- And then the Vogons destroy Earth. A typical Thursday, really.
- Meanwhile—and we hope you like that word, because you're going to hear it a lot—meanwhile, the President of the Galaxy is on the opposite side of the galaxy, about to dedicate some secret science project called the Heart of Gold.
- President Zaphod Beeblebrox might seem like a strange choice for president, unless you know what the president's real job is. A footnote here helpfully notes that the president doesn't have any power—his job is to distract people from the real sources of power. Man, this suddenly got very political.
- But Zaphod really wants to be president because he wants to steal the spaceship with the special Heart of Gold engine.
- Allow us to just mention here that Zaphod has got himself surgically altered to have an extra head and an extra arm. For ski-boxing, of course.
- At the president's dedication, we also briefly meet a woman named Trillian, who is, we're told, a girl Zaphod picked up on some other planet. If you notice that Adams doesn't name the planet, give yourself a gold star. Now add some planets around that star and you've got a little solar system.
- Zaphod enjoys toying with the audience and the press. Instead of giving a big speech, all he says is "Hi" and "Wow"—until he tells them that he wants to steal the ship... He goes ahead and steals that ship.
- Meanwhile, back on the Vogon ship, we're introduced to the Vogons and the leader of this fleet, Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz.
- The Vogons are stubborn and horrible creatures. For instance, their home planet has beautiful jeweled crabs that the Vogons enjoy smashing to bits. It also has beautiful gazelle-type creatures that the Vogons sit on for fun, even though that breaks the backs of the gazelle creatures.
- But now the Vogons are even worse: they're bureaucrats in the Galactic Civil Service. And they hate hitchhikers.
- That's a problem for Ford and Arthur since the two of them are hitchhiking on the Vogon ship. The Vogons may hate hitchhikers, but they love eating. Now, the best cooks in the galaxy are the Dentrassi, who love food and love annoying the Vogons. So it was the Dentrassi who picked Ford and Arthur up from Earth before it was destroyed.
- Arthur is a little confused about being on an alien ship after the destruction of Earth. But luckily Ford has peanuts, so everything's cool, right?
- Meanwhile (argh!), back in the control room of the Vogon ship, Jeltz is in a foul mood and wants to yell at someone. So he's pretty happy to discover that there are some hitchhikers on board for him to kill.
- Meanwhile, back in the Dentrassi room, Ford tries to explain things to Arthur by giving him a book, which is a good way to get out of the job of explaining something.
- The book is the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, an "electronic book" (5.54), which has entries on all sorts of things. So Arthur looks up the Vogons in the Guide.
- The Guide helpfully tells Arthur that the Vogons are terrible and that you should "On no account allow a Vogon to read poetry at you" (5.65)
- Arthur is a little overwhelmed by the whole thing, but Ford promises him that they'll have a good time checking out the galaxy—as soon as Arthur puts this small yellow fish in his ear. Arthur hesitates, which is weird considering how much the British love fish and chips in their ears.
- Jeltz starts giving an announcement over the PA system of the ship, but it's in Vogon, so Arthur can't understand it—until, that is, Ford puts the little fish in his ear.
- Jeltz announces that he's going to find and kill the hitchhikers by throwing them out an airlock. But first they're going to jump through hyperspace to a nearby star. Ford tells Arthur that going into hyperspace is like being drunk, which isn't fun—not for the liquid being drunk, at least.
- Arthur asks Ford about the fish in his ear, which means we're about to get a lesson from the Guide.
- The Babel fish (says the Guide) is the weirdest fish ever: it feeds on the brain energy of people around the host and excretes (ew) brain waves into the host. Which basically means that it translates anything you hear into language you can understand.
- Some people think the Babel fish proves that God doesn't exist by proving that God does. Wait, what? The idea goes something like this:
- Proof denies faith, says God, and faith is necessary. But, says Man, the Babel fish couldn't evolve naturally and clearly was created by God. Therefore the Babel fish proves You exist—which means that You don't. We find this joke hilarious, but if you don't, the secret is to keep reading it over and over again until you do.
- Also, there's a cultural translation problem here: when the narrator says that Man got killed at the next "zebra crossing," that's just British-talk for a crosswalk for people—not a crosswalk for zebras. Though that's a pretty funny image.
- After the trip through hyperspace, Arthur tries to deal with the whole "my planet exploded" feeling. It doesn't go well.
- Arthur asks to see the Guide's entry for Earth and is disappointed to see that it only says "Harmless."
- Ford tries to explain that there are lots of planets out there and not a lot of space in the book. And on the bright side, Ford helps to extend the entry on Earth so that it reads "Mostly harmless."
- Arthur freaks out, but luckily, the Vogons come to kill them at this time.
- We start out this chapter learning about how dangerous poetry can be. Vogon poetry is the third worst and most dangerous. The second worst poetry—the Azagoth's poetry—could make people die of internal bleeding.
- The worst poetry in the galaxy is by Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings, who lived in Greenbridge, in Essex, in England, on Earth.
- So it's bad news for Arthur and Ford when Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz starts to read his poetry to them. Especially because they are strapped into "Poetry Appreciation Chairs" and have other devices hooked up to make sure they really get the poetry.
- Ford and Arthur suffer through the poetry—or as the British say, lorry flat lift.
- And then Jeltz gives them a choice: be thrown out the airlock or tell him how good his poetry is, which sure makes him seem like some people we know.
- Arthur valiantly tries, telling Jeltz that the poem had some very nice "metaphysical imagery" and "interesting rhythmic devices" (7.22, 25). In other words, Arthur makes up a bunch of stuff in order to make it look like he understood and liked the poem, whereas most people just choose the simple solution of saying it was "interesting."
- Jeltz doesn't fall for it. Arthur and Ford say the poem shows that Jeltz has got a good heart, but Jeltz knows that he's rotten to the core.
- So Jeltz orders Arthur and Ford thrown off the ship. Everyone lives happily ever after, except for Ford and Arthur, who die in the cold void of space. No, wait, that can't be right.
- What actually happens is that Ford almost convinces the Vogon guard that there's more to life than throwing people out of airlocks. Almost, but not quite.
- So the Vogon guard throws them into an airlock. So, as Arthur keeps repeating, they're really going to die this time, 30 seconds after the airlock opens.
- And then the airlock opens.
- This is a short chapter that tells us that (a) space is big, too big for people to really understand; and (b) the chances of being picked up by a passing spaceship after being tossed out of an airlock of another spaceship are 2^267,791 to 1; and (c) that was the telephone number for an apartment in Islington, a neighborhood in London where Arthur went to a party once and met a nice girl who left with another guy; and (d) Arthur and Ford got picked up by a ship before they died.
- The ship that picked up Arthur and Ford happens to be the Heart of Gold, the ship that Zaphod stole in Chapter 4. Except to Arthur and Ford, it looks like Southend, which is a popular seaside vacation spot in England. No word on whether Southend paid Douglas Adams for this bit of product placement.
- Actually, everything looks weird for a while: the sea remains stationary and the buildings wave up and down; Arthur loses a few limbs; and Ford turns into a penguin. No, really. As Arthur says to Ford, "you're turning into a penguin. Stop it" (60).
- At the same time, an announcing voice seems to be giving probability measurements, which doesn't help anyone (or give any secret phone numbers). But the voice does welcome them to the Heart of Gold.
- Ford explains to Arthur that they're on a ship with the Infinite Improbability Drive. And that means that we're probably in for another digression. But wait, what's this? The chapter is already over? But we wanted to know about the Infinite Improbability Drive. Now we'll never know about it, we guess.
- Just kidding. This short chapter tells us all about the Infinite Improbability Drive. But we still can't figure out if it makes any sense.
- Basically, scientists always knew how to generate "finite improbability," which was useful for teleporting people's underwear away from their bodies at parties. We wish we had come up with that joke, but it's all Adams.
- But they never could create infinite improbability, which would be useful for sending a spaceship across the galaxy in no time at all. The scientists declared this to be impossible, until one student finally realized that an impossible thing was only "a finite improbability"—and since they can make finite improbability, whiz-boom-bang, there's the Infinite Improbability Drive, created out of "thin air."
- This doesn't help the student, since the other scientists kill him for being too clever.
- But while we've been learning about science (sort of) in Chapter 10, look what's been going on in Chapter 11.
- Zaphod and Trillian are in the control cabin of the Heart of Gold spaceship. Zaphod is upset that they've picked up hitchhikers since they are, you know, wanted by the police after the theft of this ship.
- Trillian, meanwhile, is calmly reading off probability figures (which means the voice we heard in Chapter 9 was her voice). She adds that the ship picked the hitchhikers up by itself, which is very, well, improbable. That's the secret word of the book. Every time the book says "improbable," scream.
- Zaphod and Trillian send the robot Marvin down to fetch the hitchhikers now that normality is restored. Marvin is a very depressed robot who doesn't want to do anything, which we totally relate to.
- Then there's a little digression about how the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation tries to sell their robots.
- Meanwhile, Arthur and Ford are checking out the spaceship's sales brochures.
- Ford tries to tell Arthur how cool this whole spaceship is, especially because it comes with robots and computers with GPP: Genuine People Personalities.
- And that's when Marvin enters and demonstrates how terrible GPP is. All the doors and elevators on the ship not only do their job but tell you how happy they are to do their job.
- Marvin welcomes them to the Heart of Gold by telling them how terrible life is. He also adds that this spaceship was stolen by Zaphod Beeblebrox, which surprises Ford. But why? Curse these chapters and their cliffhangers.
- Meanwhile, back on the bridge of the Heart of Gold, Zaphod is listening to the news, which is all about how he stole the Heart of Gold—which he should know, so why is he listening to the news?
- Trillian interrupts him to tell him all about how weird it is that the ship picked up a couple of hitchhikers in sector ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha, because that's where Trillian is from.
- Zaphod doesn't remember that's how he got here, which leads Trillian to wonder whether he's (a) really dumb, (b) playing dumb out of laziness, or (c) playing dumb to make people underestimate him.
- Zaphod wants to work out how improbable it was to pick up those guys, so he starts to use the computer, named Eddie. Eddie is very friendly and wants to help, which makes everyone hate Eddie.
- Trillian asks a smart question (finally, someone here is smart and not annoying; yay for Trillian): can they see the two guys on any of their security monitors?
- Meanwhile, Marvin leads Arthur and Ford to the bridge, where the two groups of people meet. We can finally stop saying "meanwhile."
- Zaphod is totally relaxed, but "Ford was not going to be outcooled" (13.27).
- So both of them pretend like this is all totally ordinary: it's totally ordinary to be picked up after being thrown out an airlock.
- Unfortunately, they both lose their cool when Arthur claims to know Zaphod. Apparently, Zaphod crashed a party on Earth once—and went by the normal name "Phil." Also, we should note that he had only one head and one arm at the time, which is why it was a boring party.
- The party was in Islington. Ah, now we remember that comment about a phone number for an Islington apartment in Chapter 8. Now, at this party, Arthur was trying to talk to a great woman. But then "Phil" interrupted by saying she should come with him since he was an alien.
- And guess what? Trillian was the woman at the party. Her Earth name is Tricia McMillian, which is cool but not nearly as space-sounding as "Trillian." By the by, that's also how Shmoop got its name. Its Earth name was Shubert Hinklemoop.
- Trillian decided to come to space because what was she going to do on Earth with degrees in math and astrophysics? Wall Street would be our guess these days.
- After that weird meeting, everyone tries to sleep.
- Trillian can't sleep and watches her white mice play until that gets boring. Then she goes to the bridge to see where everyone is.
- Zaphod can't sleep because he's thinking about how he doesn't seem to be all there: he does stuff but he's never entirely sure why he does stuff.
- Ford can't sleep because he's worried about Zaphod's plan.
- Arthur can't sleep… actually, scratch that. Arthur sleeps.
- Trillian wakes up Zaphod because they have arrived at their destination. Ford comes to the bridge because he can't sleep.
- Zaphod is very happy because they've reached their destination, an amazing and improbable planet that… well, we'll probably hear more about it in the next chapter.
- The planet Magrathea, according to the Guide, is a legendary planet that people don't believe in anymore.
- However, back in the day, it was a planet that existed to serve the rich people of the galaxy. That is, once people got a certain amount of money, they found life on the regular planets rather dull.
- So Magrathea stepped up and started making custom planets for rich people.
- This service was very expensive, so pretty soon Magrathea had all the money and no one else could afford their services. That dunked the galactic economy into a huge depression.
- And then Magrathea disappeared.
- Arthur gets woken up by an argument between Ford and Zaphod. Zaphod argues that the planet is Magrathea, while Ford argues that Magrathea is just a myth.
- Zaphod tries to prove the planet is Magrathea by pointing out distinctive features, like the fact that it has two suns. What a show-offy planet.
- Arthur is amazed by the planet, but he also wishes he had a cup of tea. Tea is a drug that has ruined Britain. Just say no.
- While Ford and Zaphod continue to argue and look at the planet, Arthur adds: "The suspense is killing me" (51). This leads the narrator to note that stress is a serious problem, so to avoid suspense, the narrator will tell the reader a few things right now:
- (A) The planet is Magrathea.
- (B) Missiles are about to be launched at the Heart of Gold, but no one will be seriously hurt—though Trillian's mice cage will get broken.
- (C) Someone will get a bruise on his or her arm, but to preserve some suspense, the narrator won't tell us who.
- Arthur gets a cup of some drink from a Nutri-Matic machine, but that drink is not at all tea.
- The Heart of Gold gets a series of recorded messages from the planet, which basically boil down to: thanks for stopping by, we're closed at the moment, come again later.
- But when Zaphod continues to bring the ship down to the planet, another recording says that they're launching nuclear missiles at the ship and hope they come again in their next life.
- That would be scary, except we know everyone will end up mostly okay, so we don't have to worry. You better be relaxed right now… or else.
- The ship can't take any evasive actions to avoid the nuclear missiles. In fact, the computer Eddie just starts singing.
- So Arthur does the only thing he can do and turns on the Improbability Drive, which could kill them. Then again, the nuclear missiles definitely will kill them, so he's got a point.
- And then… then there's a new chapter.
- And then everything is okay. The interior of the ship is a little different—there are plants and comfortable chairs, and Ford has a drink in his hand. All in all, it's a good change.
- Instead of changing where they were, the Improbability Drive changed things around them. So not only has the ship's bridge changed, but the two missiles have changed as well.
- One of them has changed into a sperm whale. And the other has changed into a bowl of petunias.
- And now we get the thoughts of that poor, sweet, doomed sperm whale as it falls out of the sky and onto the planet.
- The whale is confused but excited, with the wind rushing through its, uh, not hair, but whatever whales have instead of hair. Or do whales have hair?
- The whale tries to figure out its place in the universe. It also wants to be friends with the ground, but the ground doesn't want to be friends with the whale. The whale falls out of the sky and meets the ground.
- Exit poor, sweet sperm whale.
- Meanwhile (argh, another one), the bowl of petunias thinks only "Oh no, not again" (18.36) before crashing and dying.
- Zaphod, Trillian, Arthur, Ford, and Marvin "the paranoid android" (3) prepare to explore the surface of the planet. Note: Marvin isn't really an android, he's a robot. Also, he's not paranoid, but just depressed. But tell that to these guys, who made a song with that title anyway.
- Trillian is upset (not Marvin-level upset, but just regular upset) that her white mice have escaped. However, no one else is upset, which is probably because people don't know that humans weren't the second-most intelligent life on Earth, but the third-most.
- Eddie's super friendly personality has been switched (by Zaphod) to a smothering mother personality, who warns them about catching colds and playing with the wrong type of alien. Eddie finally lets them out when Zaphod threatens it with an ax.
- So the group leaves for Magrathea.
- And then, surprising Eddie, another group leaves the ship to see Magrathea. If you can't guess, the narrator will pretty much tell us in twelve chapters' time—in Chapter 31—who that other group was.
- Magrathea is kind of a dump: the surface is dull-colored and empty—except for one big crater that seems to be scattered with blubber. Yeah, this is the crater that the falling whale made. Ew.
- On the bright side, the crater opens up a path into the tunnels under the surface of the planet. As Zaphod explains, everyone lived underground in Magrathea.
- Arthur asks why they lived underground: "Did the surface become too polluted or overpopulated?" (20.31).
- No, explains Zaphod, it's just that no one liked the surface very much. Zing—take that, boring surface.
- Zaphod leaves Arthur and Marvin to guard the surface, while he, Trillian, and Ford go to explore the tunnels, which means we're going to be using "meanwhile" a bunch.
- While they explore the tunnels, Ford confronts Zaphod about how he found a totally lost planet. Or, as the British say, Spice Girls.
- So Zaphod explains that life works out better for him if he doesn't think too hard about why he does things. But last night, he was worried about this very issue, so he ran some tests on his brains (remember, he has two of them since he has two heads). He discovered that part of his brain was sealed off and that someone had left his or her initials there.
- The initials were—oh, this is totally like a horror story—"Z. B." (88), which happen to be Zaphod's own initials.
- Before they can explore this fascinating insight, Zaphod and Ford get gassed and pass out.
- Meanwhile, Arthur wastes time by reading the Hitchhiker's Guide. There's a crazy story about a young genius who got obsessed—after a night of drinking with Zaphod—with the question of where lost ballpoint pens go. If you have a British version of this book, they use the term "biro." Why? That's one of the mysteries of the universe—and they say the same thing about us.
- So this genius, Veet Voojagig, comes up a theory about a planet where ballpoint pens live. He claims that he lived and worked there for a while, which no one believes.
- But (ba-dum-dum) Zaphod does have a used ballpoint pen business…
- Arthur tries to talk to Marvin, but that's even more a waste of time, since Marvin only has depressing things to say.
- So Arthur goes on a walk and almost bumps into an old man.
- Meanwhile… no, wait, this chapter just continues the last chapter.
- The old man tells Arthur not to be worried, that he's totally safe. When Arthur asks about the missiles that almost killed them all, the old man notes that the computers do that sometimes because they're bored.
- The old man also explains that the Magratheans aren't dead. They're just sleeping until the economy recovers enough for them to start selling their services again and building custom planets.
- Also, back when the Magratheans were awake, the old man's favorite thing was to make fjords.
- The old man tells Arthur to follow him or he'll be "late." And by "late," he means "dead."
- So they get into the old man's aircar, where the old man finally introduces himself. His name is Slartibartfast.
- Now we get a digression on intelligent species on Earth. See, humans thought they were smarter than dolphins because humans built stuff, like guns and cities, whereas all dolphins did was play around in the water.
- Of course, the dolphins thought they were smarter for that same reason.
- Also, the dolphins knew about the destruction of Earth and left before the Vogons came. They did try to warn people, but no one realized what they were saying. So the dolphins gave one last message and left.
- The message: "So long and thanks for all the fish" (3).
- But there was another species on Earth even more intelligent than humans and dolphins—a species that spent most of its time running on plastic wheels and running mazes in labs.
- Slartibartfast takes Arthur into the planet, where all the cool nightclubs are.
- Actually, Slartibartfast is taking Arthur into the hyperspace dimension-place-thingy where they build planets. It's not really inside the planet, but that's how you get there.
- Right now, they are building a new planet here—a second Earth, because, as Slartibartfast explains, they made the first one, too.
- Slartibartfast is very proud of the fjords of Norway, which he won an award for.
- He also explains that it was the mice that paid for Earth, because they were in fact hyperintelligent pandimensional beings that just look like mice in our dimension. Not just cheese-sniffing pe(s)ts. They had bought Earth as a giant computer to run a special program.
- None of this makes any sense to Arthur, so Slartibartfast offers to explain.
- If you think that God made Earth, or that it was made by the natural forces of the cosmos, you are in for one big shock in this chapter.
- The story of the Earth starts a long time ago, with a species of hyperintelligent pandimensional beings who wanted to find out the meaning of life, mostly because they wanted to get on with their favorite hobby: Brockian Ultra Cricket.
- So they built a giant super computer named Deep Thought to solve the question of life, the universe, and everything.
- Unfortunately, as soon as the programmers Lunkwill and Fook turned the computer on, two things distracted them.
- First, this giant computer said that it's the second-most powerful computer in the galaxy because… it knows that there will be an even more powerful computer after it. That's kind of a weird thing to say, but hey, we wish all our electronics announced their eventual obsolescence.
- Second, before the computer could answer, two philosophers, Majikthise and Vroomfondel, barged in and demanded that the computer not work on this subject.
- As Majikthise said, the Ultimate Truth is something only Philosophers should work on: "I mean what's the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives us his bleeding phone number the next morning?" (67)
- But Deep Thought pointed out that this was a good thing for philosophers: Deep Thought will take 7.5 million years to come up with an answer, which will give philosophers millions of years to sell books and appear on talk shows.
- And so everyone was happy, except for the people who would have to wait 7.5 million years for an answer, and who probably didn't survive long enough to hear it.
- But that's only the first half of the story.
- For the second half, Slartibartfast has a Sens-O-Tape record.
- So Slartibartfast can set Arthur up with the Sens-O-Tape. Or Arthur can take a stroll on an unfinished Earth. (They don't even have all the fake dinosaur bones in the ground or any of the tanning salons built.)
- Arthur chooses Sens-O-Tape over unfinished Earth.
- Slartibartfast's study is a mess because the cleaning staff all died, which is a real shame. For one thing, they have no one to clean up the dead cleaning staff.
- But Slartibartfast can still find the Sens-O-Tape, which gives Arthur a complete sensory experience. It's like virtual reality, or Las Vegas.
- In Chapter 25, the computer Deep Thought said it would take 7.5 million years to find the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything. Now we fast-forward to the day when Deep Thought will finally answer the question.
- There's a huge audience waiting in the streets for an answer. It's like New Year's Eve in New York, plus Mardi Gras in New Orleans. A speaker works up the crowd, noting that soon they'll have an answer and will no longer have to worry about why they're here.
- Inside the building with the computer terminal, two computer programmers, Loonquawl and Phouchg, prepare to hear the answer from Deep Thought. There's a lot of suspense over this answer.
- Deep Thought is a little hesitant about revealing the answer and tells them they won't like it, but they demand to hear the answer.
- So Deep Thought gives them the answer to life, the universe, and everything. The answer is: 42.
- Loonquawl and Phouchg are not happy with that answer. Deep Thought explains to them that they just never really knew what the question was.
- So Deep Thought will design a computer that will come up with the question for them. It will be a giant computer, the size of a planet. And it will be so complex that organic life will be part of its hardware. And it will take 10 million years to figure out the question.
- According to Deep Thought, Loonquawl and Phouchg will go down onto the planet to monitor its operation.
- Deep Thought names this planet the Earth, which Phouchg thinks is a dull name.
- But that explains a lot about how the world works—like how you'll always be in the slowest lane if you're driving or the slowest line if you're at the grocery store. It's all part of the program.
- Meanwhile, what's up with Zaphod, Ford, and Trillian?
- Our intrepid (but not really all that intrepid) explorers are on a solid gold planet, but not really.
- Zaphod, Ford, and Trillian, after being knocked out by the gas, wake up to find themselves in a sort of virtual reality catalogue.
- These are all the custom planets that Magrathea could build, Ford explains, which really ruins Zaphod's mood, since he likes the idea of a gold planet.
- The last planet was full of fish, Ford says, and the next planet has some terribly clashing colors.
- So Zaphod, Ford, and Trillian ignore the planet and talk about Zaphod's brain condition. (Condition: Weird.)
- Zaphod figures that he sealed off a part of his brain so that no one would know that he knew… something. Unfortunately, he's someone, so he has to hide this info from himself, too.
- All of this has to do with a previous president of the galaxy, a guy named Yooden Vranx, whom Zaphod and Ford knew when they were kids.
- Right before Vranx died, he visited Zaphod to tell him about the Heart of Gold, saying that Zaphod should steal it but that he would have to hide the reasons why he was stealing it. If not, it would show up on the scans before he was elected president. So that explains why Zaphod caused himself some brain damage. Insert joke here about politicians and brain damage, if you want. It's too easy for us.
- At that moment, the catalogue ends and a tall Magrathean tells them that "The mice will see you now" (29.72), which is probably the oddest invitation ever uttered.
- Meanwhile, back to Arthur and Slartibartfast.
- Slartibartfast finishes the story: Earth was a giant computer, with all the life on it part of the program. And it was five minutes away from giving an answer when the Vogons came and destroyed it.
- That's a real stupid way for a planet to go, Slartibartfast agrees. However, rather than worry about things like that, he would prefer to just keep busy making fjords.
- In Earth Two, for example, he's been given Africa to do, and he's decided to do it all with fjords, even though people complain that that's not accurate.
- Slartibartfast tells Arthur that it's time to meet the mice. We were hoping that it was time to meet the fjords.
- This announcement causes Arthur to reflect: "'I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle,' he muttered to himself" (30.20).
- If this plot was making too much sense and moving too fast for you, you can take a small breather here, since we get a digression.
- Arthur's comment about how he was having difficulty with his lifestyle fell through a wormhole in space-time. It landed at a peace meeting between two species that were about to go to war (or make peace). But just at that moment, Arthur's comment slipped in, and it was a huge insult in one of their languages.
- After thousands of years of war, these two species made peace and realized that the terrible insult actually came from our galaxy. So they sent a giant war fleet to destroy Earth.
- Unfortunately for them, they miscalculated the size of Earth, and the whole fleet was swallowed by a small dog.
- We hope you enjoyed that digression, because we return now to the main story.
- Slartibartfast brings Arthur to a room where Zaphod, Ford, and Trillian are already eating a big meal.
- Zaphod, Ford, and Trillian introduce Arthur to their hosts, Benjy mouse and Frankie mouse, who were the white mice that Trillian brought from Earth. (So, in Chapter 19, when the ship let out two groups of people, these mice were the second group.)
- Benjy mouse and Frankie mouse (no relation) tell Slartibartfast that they won't need a new Earth after all, which upsets him. Because, of course, he was really looking forward to making more fjords.
- The mice have a proposition for Arthur and his friends: since Arthur was on Earth right before it went ka-blooey, his brain may hold the question that the computer was trying to find out.
- Frankie and Benjy need to know that question because they've got some great offers for talk show appearances (and probably book deals) back in their own dimension.
- All Frankie and Benjy want is to buy Arthur's brain, chop it up, find out the question that's hidden there, and then go off to become ridiculously famous and wealthy in their own dimension.
- Frankie and Benjy say they'll totally replace Arthur's brain with a simple electronic brain, so no one will notice. As Zaphod points out, all this new brain would need to say is "What?," "I don't understand," and "Where's the tea?" (89). That seems pretty accurate to us.
- Arthur doesn't want to have his brain chopped up for science, but the mice won't take no for an answer.
- The mice's thugs get ready to attack when suddenly all the alarms on the planet go off. It's probably just someone burning the popcorn again, setting off the fire alarm, right?
- Since they can't get the real question from Arthur's brain, Benjy mouse and Frankie mouse try to come up with a fake question—something that sounds good when the answer is "42." They settle on "How many roads must a man walk down?" (See our Shout-Outs section if you don't know where that question is from.)
- Meanwhile, Arthur and his friends are trying to escape when they discover why the alarms are going off.
- It's the galactic police, who are trying to arrest Zaphod for stealing the Heart of Gold. Oh, yeah, now we remember that. It's been so long since anyone mentioned that Zaphod was wanted by the police that we almost forgot.
- So two policemen start shooting at our heroes who take shelter behind a big computer. Well, "heroes" might be stretching things. Let's say "people we know." In any case, did we mention that these aren't ordinary policemen? As one of them comments, "we're a couple of intelligent caring guys that you'd probably quite like if you met us socially! I don't go around gratuitously shooting people and then bragging about it afterwards in seedy space-rangers bars, like some cops I could mention! I go around shooting people gratuitously and then I agonize about it afterwards for hours to my girlfriend!" (32.40).
- But the cops keep shooting at these people we know, which is, as the British say, a bummer. Especially when the computer our gang is hiding behind starts melting.
- (If you know the radio show and television version, things take a drastically different turn around here. If you've been trying to fake knowledge of the book by watching the movie, then you probably got lost after the credits rolled.)
- The cops stop firing at Arthur and friends and our heroes (well, you know, not really heroes) come out to see what's up.
- Ford goes over to the now-dead cops and discovers that their life-support systems broke. Which is weird because there's usually a back-up computer on their ship.
- So Arthur and friends (well, people he kind of knows and puts up with) rush out and discover that Slartibartfast has left them his aircar with a note telling them which button to press.
- What Slartibartfast doesn't tell them, besides his favorite place to brunch on Sundays, is that the button makes the aircar go very fast.
- Arthur and the others very soon find themselves at the Heart of Gold spaceship. Next to it is the policemen's spaceship, which seems totally dead, sort of like the policemen.
- No one else is curious, but Ford (again) goes to check it out and discovers that the computer is dead and Marvin is lying face down on the ground nearby.
- Marvin explains that he was talking to this new ship—until the ship committed suicide. That also explains why the police died.
- (If you're keeping track, this makes the most dangerous things in this book: the Vogon fleet, Marvin's depression, and Vogon poetry. There's got to be a lesson here, but we can't figure out what it is.)
- Back on the ship, Arthur flips through the Guide.
- Arthur discovers an article that says that every civilization goes through three stages: Survival, Inquiry, and Sophistication. For example, take eating:
- Survival: "How can we eat?"
- Inquiry: "Why do we eat?"
- Sophistication: "Where shall we have lunch?" (4).
- And about this time, Zaphod tells everyone that they'll grab something to eat at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. That, folks, is the second book in the series. Cliffhanger for the win.