The Ultimate Question

The book was proving to be a challenge. I knew there was a story in there somewhere, I just wasn’t sure how best to tell it.

Perhaps an introduction. A taster, a hook. Grab the attention and promise great secrets, the revelation of a deep and compelling mystery.

But how best to set the tone. Underplay and the reader loses interest, overplay and the whole thing unravels like any old delusional hyperbole.

So I took time out to stay with my parents and give it some thought. I took along my laptop and a battered copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

I was hoping to find a quote I could use. I chose Hitchhikers because it deals with similar themes to the book I was in the process of writing: hidden order behind the chaos of existence, embedded meaning in human affairs. In Douglas Adams’ story, the planet Earth is a vast organic computer designed to calculate the Ultimate Question to Life, the Universe and Everything.

The answer to Life, the Universe and Everything is already known: it’s forty-two. It’s the question that’s the important thing.

Just as Earth is about to fulfil its mission, it gets demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Arthur Dent escapes and becomes the focus of intergalactic scrutiny. As an inhabitant of the planet Earth, he carries the result of Earth’s mission in the hidden recesses of his mind. All he has to do is unlock the information.

Preferring not to have his brain dissected by hyperintelligent pan-dimensional beings, Arthur opts for a more painless solution. Relying on the power of coincidence to tease the information out of his unconscious, he pulls Scrabble letters at random from a bag.

The letters spell out the question, “What do you get if you multiply six by nine?”

The joke is that six times nine does not equal forty-two.

In the original radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent responds to the mismatch with the line: “I always said there was something fundamentally wrong with the universe.”


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At my parent's place, I reread The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and found a potential excerpt nestled in a section of dialogue in which Slartibartfast, designer of planets, explains to Arthur Dent the nature of Earth.

        ‘Your planet and people have formed the matrix of an organic computer running a ten-million-year research program...
        ‘Let me tell you the whole story. It’ll take a little time.’

I wasn’t sure whether to use it.

I was toying with this kind of pitch:

“In Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams cast the Earth as a giant supercomputer in which humanity plays an integral part. Adams, an outspoken atheist, was making a joke. The strange thing is, his words may not be that far from the truth.”

But was it suitable for the introduction? Was it, perhaps, a little niche, a little geeky? I was unsure.

It was a warm Friday afternoon and I was sitting outside in the sun. Earlier in the day Mum and I had played a game of Scrabble, though it has to be said that nothing even resembling a profound message had cropped up in the letter tiles. Now my thoughts returned to the introduction I was struggling to write. I was thinking about coincidences that might not be coincidences and hidden order behind the chaos of existence, thinking about Earth as a supercomputer and whether or not to include the Douglas Adams quote in the introduction, when Mum poked her head out of the window and said -

“John, what is six times seven?”


*    *    *


Mum had no idea what was on my mind. She wasn’t aware of the Hitchhikers plot or my current interest in the number forty-two.

The rational explanation (and there is always a rational explanation) is that Gabi, a friend of my parents, was visiting to check out some of my sister’s hand-made jewellery. Gabi decided to buy six decorative bookmarks at seven euros-a-piece. Wanting to know how much that came to, my mother instinctively called out to me in the hope that, as someone who used to be good at maths, I would quickly work it out.

But I didn’t need to work it out.

I already knew the answer.


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