Arthur Dent, a mild-mannered and constantly befuddled Earthman has been rescued from the destruction of Earth by his friend Ford Prefect, an alien from a small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse who was visiting Arthur's world to do research for the Guide. By an infinitely improbable coincidence, the two have wound up on a stolen spaceship named the Heart of Gold, operated by Ford's semi-cousin Zaphod Beeblebrox, former galactic president and cool frood, and Trillian, a nice astro-physicist from Islington whom Arthur once met at a party. The four of them, accompanied by the electronic ennui of their robot Marvin, are now on their way to the Legendary Planet of Magrathea.
The Legend of Magrathea comes from a Golden Age, as the Guide describes:
Far back in the mists of ancient time, in the great and glorious days of the Former Galactic Empire, life was wild, rich, and on the whole tax free ... In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. And all dared to brave unknown terrors, to do mighty deeds, to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before and thus was the Empire forged.
Many men of course became extremely rich, but this was perfectly natural and nothing to be ashamed of because no one was really poor -- at least, no one worth speaking of.The One-Percenters of this Hyper-Gilded Age who were worth speaking of became so mega-rich that a staggering new form of industry was created to cater to their needs: the building of custom-made luxury planets. This industry was centered on the planet Magrathea "where vast hyperspatial engineering works were constructed to suck matter through white holes in space and form it into dream planets".
Ah, but every Golden Age comes to an end.
...very soon Magrathea itself became the richest planet of all time and the rest of the galaxy was reduced to abject poverty. And so the system broke down, the Empire collapsed and a long sullen silence settled over the Galaxy, disturbed only by the pen scratchings of scholars as they laboured into the night over smug little treatises on the value of a planned political economy.That, at least, is the legend. "In these enlightened days, of course," the Book tells us, "no one believes a word of it."
"Magrathea is a myth, a fairy story," Ford insists, "it's what parents tell their kids about at night if they want them to grow up to be economists..."
Despite Ford's skepticism, Magrathea is precisely the planet their spaceship now orbits. Zaphod has used the coincidence-inducing properties of his spaceship's Infinite Improbability Drive to locate the planet. "...it's partly the curiosity, partly a sense of adventure, but mostly I think it's the fame and the money."
But the planet isn't entirely dead. It's automatic defense systems target the spaceship Heart of Gold with a pair of deadly nuclear missiles, (which the calm voice of the Narration assures us will not obliterate our heroes, but merely result in someone's bruised arm and "the untimely creation of a bowl of petunias and an innocent sperm whale.") Arthur manages to save them all by activating the Infinite Improbability Drive, which transforms the missiles into those items.
The bit with the sperm whale is one of the most famous from the series. Douglas Adams wrote it because he was annoyed by a TV cop show where people would get gunned down for arbitrary reasons and then ignored. He decided that he would write a character whose sole reason for existing was to get killed for a plot point, and then make the audience care about him. He did this with this brilliant bit of monologue in which the whale-which-was-a-missile comes into existence and tries to come to grips with its identity as a whale; all the time while plummeting through the planet's atmosphere. It's a joyous, enthusiastic celebration of the wonder of life and of exploring the world. The punchline is poignant, tragic and grossly funny, all at once.
Adams later commented: "I received quite a number of letters saying how cruel and callous this section was -- letters I certainly would not have received if I had simply mentioned the whale's fate incidentally and passed on. I probably wouldn't have received them if it had been a human either."
Curiously enough the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was 'Oh no, not again.' Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias has thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the Universe than we do now.In the novel Life, the Universe, and Everything, we do find out why. Personally, I think the petunias are funnier left a mystery.
As the Narration promised, the crew of the Heart of Gold are unharmed except for the person whose arm was bruised, (whom I will not identify in order to maintain some sense of suspense), and for some damage to the cage in which Trillian keeps her pet white mice. No one seems concerned when she notes that her mice have escaped, but the Narration tells us that this is one of the most important statements of her life.
Landing on Magrathea, they step out onto the planet, being careful not to tread on the chunks of whale meat. Zaphod, Ford and Trillian find an underground passageway which they begin to explore, leaving Arthur behind, "...just for safety," Zaphod says. "Whose? Yours or mine?" Arthur bitterly replies.
They are in danger for they are not alone on this planet. Proceeding down the tunnel, Trillian finds fresh mouse droppings -- her mice have preceded them. And then we hear a sudden electronic ZAP...
Arthur also has an unexpected encounter. An old man suddenly appears and greets him. "My name is not important," he tells Arthur. Actually, his name is Slartibartfast, but he doesn't like to mention it, because it is an embarrassing name. Slartibartfast is a coastline designer; "used to have endless fun doing all the little fiddly bits in fjords..."
He explains that the inhabitants of this planet are not all dead. "No, we have but slept. ... through the economic recession you see." When the galactic economy became unable to support luxury planet-building, the natives of Magrathea put themselves into suspended animation and programmed their computers to revive them when the Galactic stock market indicated that people could once again afford their services.
Arthur is outraged. "Good God, that's a pretty unpleasant way to behave, isn't it?"
"Is it?" Slartibartfast replies. "I'm sorry, I'm a bit out of touch."
SLARTI:Slartibartfast takes Arthur in an aircar to a section deep within the heart of Magrathea which opens up into "a vast tract of hyperspace" which is where the Magrathean's make their planets. They aren't starting up the whole works again; they've just been revived to do a special order. "It may interest you," Slartibartfast says.
You must come with me, great things are afoot ... you must come now or you will be late.ARTHUR:
Late? What for?
What is your name, human?
Dent. Arthur Dent.
Late as in the late Dentarthurdent. It's a sort of threat you see. Never been very good at them myself, but I'm told they can be terribly effective.
It does interest Arthur a great deal. The planet-in-progress Slartibartfast shows him is the Earth.
Well the Earth Mark 2 in fact. It seems that the first was was demolished five minutes too early and the most vital experiment was destroyed. There's been a terrible hooha and so we're going to make a copy from the original blueprints.Arthur can't believe that the Magratheans made the Earth. "Oh yes ... did you ever go to a place ... I think it's called Norway? ... that was one of mine. Won an award you know, lovely crinkly edges." What's more, Slartibartfast tells Arthur that Earth had originally been commissioned by the mice.
These creatures you call mice, you see, are not quite as they appear. They are merely the protrusions into our dimension of vast hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings, the whole business with the cheese and the squeaking is just a front.It seems that long, long ago, these hyper-intelligent beings had constructed a massive computer which they called "Deep Thought", in order to figure out the Answer; the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. Deep Thought required a bit of time to work the Answer out -- seven and a half million years -- but at the end of this time, it did come up with an Answer; and that Answer was...
Forty-two."You never actually stated what the question was," Deep Thought explained. Unfortunately, although it was capable of figuring out the Ultimate Answer, calculating the Ultimate Question required a computer even greater. "A computer whose merest operational parameters I am not worthy to calculate -- and yet I will design it for you." A computer the size of a planet whose life forms would act as an integral part of its operational matrix; a planet that shall be called the Earth.
The entire history of life on Earth for millions of years has been the slow working of this program to determine the Ultimate Question. Sadly, the destruction of Earth by the Vogons took place roughly five minutes before the program was completed, which is why the mice, who had been running the program need to start it over.
ARTHUR:Arthur is brought to a dining room where Zaphod, Trillian and Ford are having a banquet with Trillian's white mice, Frankie and Benjy, now revealed as the Magrathean's clients. They've come to the conclusion that they won't have to re-make the Earth after all. Since Arthur and Trillian are last-generation products of the Earth's computer matrix, they are very like in an ideal position to find the question.
You know, all this explains a lot of things. All through my life I've had this strange unaccountable feeling that something was going on in the world, something big, even sinister, and no one would tell me what it was.SLARTI:
No, that's just perfectly normal paranoia. Everyone in the Universe has that.
"How?" Arthur asks.
"Er ... no, that doesn't work either."
Before the conversation can proceed further, the planet is attacked by the police. Zaphod, as you may recall, stole the spaceship Heart of Gold, and now the cops have caught up with him. These cops were inspired by Starsky and Hutch, another American TV cop show that Adams found annoying. "In this show the heroes claimed that they did care about people being shot, so they crashed their cars into them instead," Adams commented.
Now see here, buddy, you're not dealing with any dumb two bit trigger pumping morons with low hair lines, little piggy eyes and no conversation, we're a couple of intelligent caring guys who you'd probably quite like if you met us socially. ... I don't go around gratuitously shooting people and then bragging about it in seedy space rangers' bars. I go around gratuitously shooting people and then agonize about it afterwards to my girlfriend."I think I preferred it when they were shooting," Zaphod says.
This is about the point where the novel climaxes and where it diverts from the radio series. In the novel, the gunfire suddenly ceases because Marvin had plugged himself into the cop's spaceship and, downloading his autobiography into it's A.I., has caused the spaceship to commit suicide, killing the trigger-happy cops with it. Everybody returns to the Heart of Gold and they fly off for more adventures.
In the radio series, things happen a bit differently. Ford, Arthur, Zaphod and Trillian are hiding behind a computer bank while the cops are shooting at them with ray guns. The computer seems to be absorbing a lot of energy. "I think it's about to blow," Ford says.
There is another devastating explosion.
NEXT: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe! The Haggunenon Flagship! The Fate of the Golgafrincham B Ark and Prehistoric Scrabble!