The Ultimate Answer to Life is Laughter and an Improbability Drive

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s a sort of electronic book. It tells you everything you need to know about anything. That’s its job. 

Ford Prefect

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, much like Asimov’s Foundation, is not a “classic” in the traditional sense but should be. If Asimov teaches us the importance of history, then Adams teaches us the importance of laughter. There’s no noble quest, no need to save an entire civilization here. Just a man, Arthur Dent, trying to make sense of life without planet Earth. 

Douglas Adams isn’t as concerned with the vast questions of history and how civilizations develop. He isn’t even that concerned with human foibles. Instead, he shows us that however bad we may have it on planet Earth, it will not get any better by making alien contact, flying to Mars, or interstellar travel. 

Instead, we see our problems are still going to exist. Bureaucracy will still make life confusing, political leaders still won’t make any sense, and life is going to seem like a massive joke whether we’re on this planet or on interstellar travel. 

So, what are we to do if not laugh? 

Arthur Dent loses his house and his planet in one go.

What? Harmless? It that all it’s got to say? Harmless! One word!

Arthur Dent, upon discovering Earth’s entry in the Hitchhiker’s Guide. It doesn’t exactly meet his expectations.

The beginning of Hitchhiker’s Guide must be one of the best examples of irony in literature.

Arthur Dent’s house is being bulldozed. Only he wasn’t told until the day the demolition crew arrives in his front garden. But “progress” being what it is, a new bypass is more important than one man’s house. Even if said man had no idea a new bypass was being built. 

The same day, aliens demolish the Earth to make way for a “hyperspatial express route” despite the powers that be conveniently not informing any of the residents their little planet was in the way, and they needed to move. Or that there were any such things as “hyperspatial express routes” or interstellar travel. 

These aliens, the Vogons, we’re told, have such horrible poetry that it’s literal torture to listen to. And we get a sampling of that in Chapter 7. Lewis Carroll wrote some ridiculous poetry, but this takes the cake. “Jabberwocky” at least has good scansion. And Johnny Depp reciting it in a Scottish accent in the life-action remake. 

The “express route” like the “bypass” is far more important than one man. Or planet for that matter. Bureaucracy, in Douglas Adams’ world, works on a grander scale. And if one man doesn’t matter in the face of progress, neither does an entire planet. 

Irony indeed. Especially in a world that supposedly values individual rights. Except where a new bypass is concerned. What’s so funny about any of this? Well, what would you rather do in a hopeless situation?: rage, despair, or laugh? Anyone can rage or despair, but it takes a certain lightheartedness to laugh in the face of inevitability.

The answer to everything means nothing.

Many many millions of years ago a race of hyperintelligent pandimensional beings (whose physical manifestation in their own pandimensional universe is not dissimilar to our own) got so fed up with the constant bickering about the meaning of life […] that they decided to sit down and solve their problems once and for all.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Forty-two, for those of you who haven’t read the book or watched the movie, is the answer to a question about the meaning of life that hasn’t been asked. Confused yet? Well, it’s supposed to be slightly confusing. Such is life, right? 

Well, it gets better. Because the Earth is just a giant computer created to calculate the Ultimate Question for which the Ultimate Answer is 42. 

Forty-two, it would seem, doesn’t really answer anything about the meaning of life. 

It’s not the answer for why Arthur Dent never got the notification his house was being bulldozed before the actual day arrived. It’s not the answer for why the Galactic President deliberately buried some of his memories. It’s not even the answer to why Marvin the robot hates his existence.

But, as the Deeper Thought computer points out, it’s the answer to the question no one has asked. The Deeper Thought computer, by the way, is the machine the pandimensional beings built to calculate the “Ultimate Answer.” And then they commission the Earth to calculate the “Ultimate Question.” Only for the Earth to be blown up just before their calculations are complete.  

It’s so ridiculous. The only sane response is laughter.

So when you’re in a bind, you now know the answer: 42. 

Life doesn’t always have answers, but you still have to live it.

So once you do know what the question actually is, you’ll know what the answer means.

Deeper Thought

What is the question about existence no one has asked? Well, that’s never revealed. The two pan dimensional beings who set out to find that question eventually make one up, so they don’t lose face for publicity’s sake. While there is something here about scientific and academic integrity, there is a much more important point. 

The point isn’t that there is an answer to everything: sometimes you must live without having answers to everything. Answers to life’s questions come from living—not from building massive computers to do all your thinking for you so you can spend your life frivolously. 

You can’t expect a computer to answer everything for you. Nor can you just muddle through life until the bulldozers show up in your front garden. 

What is the Ultimate Question for which the answer is 42? Well, they decide to make one up that fits the answer and has just the right amount of ambiguity without sounding esoteric. Everyone must decide what it means to them—the same situation before the Deeper Thought computer. Philosophers and theologians still have their work cut out for them and the debate will still rage on and interfere with other things. 

Is it all hopeless, or do we learn to laugh?

The point of Hitchhiker’s Guide isn’t that it’s all hopeless despite what Marvin the robot seems to think. 

No, when things seem hopeless, you must learn to laugh. Find the humor in it all, even it is extremely ironic to the point of being depressive. Like Earth being demolished to build an intergalactic highway, just as Arthur Dent’s house was being demolished to build a bypass. 

Anger and outrage are easy. Far too easy if the past few years have been anything to go by. There’s a time and a place for it, especially when something has gone heinously wrong. However, at some point, you must live again. You can’t just stop the clock and effectually die. That also is too easy. 

It’s a lot harder to let go of anger and outrage and get on with the business of living. Learning to laugh when all you want to do is scream is even harder. I think Hitchhiker’s Guide shows us the importance of doing just that. Because there is an entire galaxy out there and it may give you something better than what you think you lost. 

If only you’re brave enough to laugh. 

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