“But Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”
“Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.”
“But the plans were on display …”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a flashlight.”
“Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a few things to say on the subject of towels.
A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Krakafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Trall (a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you—daft as a brush, but very very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.
More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: nonhitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, washcloth, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet-weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have “lost.” What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through and still know where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.
Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.” (Sass: know of, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy).
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.
And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.
Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.
And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.
Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terrible, stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost forever.
This is not her story.
What a day. Ford Prefect knew that it didn’t matter a pair of dingo’s kidneys whether Arthur’s house got knocked down or not now.
Arthur remained very worried.
“But can we trust him?” he said.
“Myself I’d trust him to the end of the Earth,” said Ford.
“Oh yes,” said Arthur, “and how far’s that?”
“About twelve minutes away,” said Ford, “come on, I need a drink.”
“This must be Thursday,” said Arthur to himself, sinking low over his beer, “I never could get the hang of Thursdays.”
“I don’t know,” said the voice on the PA, “Apathetic bloody planet, I’ve no sympathy at all.” It cut off.
One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about humans was their habit of continually stating and repeating the very very obvious, as in It’s a nice day, or You’re very tall, or Oh dear you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot well, are you all right? At first Ford had formed a theory to account for this strange behavior. If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, he thought, their mouths probably seize up.
After a few months’ consideration and observation he abandoned this theory in favor of a new one. If they don’t keep on exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working. After a while he abandoned this one as well as being obstructively cynical and decided he quite liked human beings after all, but he always remained desperately worried about the terrible number of things they didn’t know about.
Ford handed the book to Arthur.
“What is it?” asked Arthur.
“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.”
Arthur turned it over nervously in his hands.
“I like the cover,” he said. “‘Don’t Panic.’ It’s the first helpful or intelligible thing anybody’s said to me all day.”
“You’d better be prepared for the jump into hyperspace. It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.”
“What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?”
“You ask a glass of water.”
The very worst poetry of all perished along with its creator, Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Greenbridge, Essex, England in the destruction of the planet Earth.
“Just stop panicking!”
“Who said anything about panicking?” snapped Arthur. “This is still just the culture shock. You wait till I’ve settled down into the situation and found my bearings. Then I’ll start panicking.”
“You know,” said Arthur, “it’s at times like this, when I’m trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse, and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space, that I really wish I’d listened to what my mother told me when I was young.”
“Why, what did she tell you?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t listen.”
“Okay, so ten out of ten for style, but minus several million for good thinking, yeah?”
The Encyclopaedia Galactica defines a robot as a mechanical apparatus designed to do the work of a man. The marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation defines a robot as “Your Plastic Pal Who’s Fun To Be With.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy defines the marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation as “a bunch of mindless jerks who’ll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes,” with a footnote to the effect that the editors would welcome applications from anyone interested in taking over the post of robotics correspondent.
Curiously enough, an edition of the Encyclopaedia Galactica that had the good fortune to fall through a time warp from a thousand years in the future defined the marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation as “a bunch of mindless jerks who were the first against the wall when the revolution came.”
“Can we drop your ego for a moment? This is important.”
“If there’s anything more important than my ego around, I want it caught and shot now.” Zaphod glared at her again, then laughed.
“It is most gratifying,” it said, “that your enthusiasm for our planet continues unabated, and so we would like to assure you that the guided missiles currently converging with your ship are part of a special service we extend to all of our most enthusiastic clients, and the fully armed nuclear warheads are of course merely a courtesy detail. We look forward to your custom in future lives … thank you.”
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 had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the universe than we do now.
An expression of deep worry and concern failed to cross either of Zaphod’s faces.
The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the “Star Spangled Banner”, but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish.
He continued: “I should warn you that the chamber we are about to pass into does not literally exist within our planet. It is a little too … large. We are about to pass through a gateway into a vast tract of hyperspace. It may disturb you.”
Arthur made nervous noises.
Slartibartfast touched a button and added, not entirely reassuringly, “It scares the willies out of me. Hold tight.”
Lallafa had lived in the forests of the Long Lands of Effa. He lived there, and he wrote his poems there. He wrote them on pages made of dried habra leaves, without the benefit of education or correcting fluid. He wrote about the light in the forest, and what he thought about that. He wrote about the darkness in the forest and what he thought about that. He wrote about the girl who had left him and precisely what he thought about that.
Then, shortly after the invention of time travel, some major correcting fluid manufacturers wondered whether his poems might have been better still if he had access to some high-quality correcting fluid, and whether he might be persuaded to say a few words to that effect.
They traveled the time waves; they found him, and did indeed persuade him. In fact they persuaded him to such effect that he became extremely rich at their hands, and the girl about whom he was otherwise destined to write with such precision never got around to leaving him, and in fact they moved out of the forest to a rather nice pad in town and he frequently commuted to the future to do talk shows, on which he sparkled wittily.
He never got around to writing the poems, of course, which was a problem but an easily solved one. The manufacturers of correcting fluid simply packed him off for a week somewhere with a copy of a later edition of his book and stacks of dried habra leaves to copy them out onto, making the odd deliberate mistake and correction on the way.
Many people now say that the poems are suddenly worthless. Others argue that they are exactly the same as they always were, so what’s changed? The first people say that that isn’t the point. They aren’t quite certain what the point is, but they are quite sure that that isn’t it. They set up the Campaign for Real Time to try to stop this sort of thing going on. Their case was considerably strengthened by the fact that a week after they had set themselves up, news broke that not only had the great Cathedral of Chalesm been pulled down in order to build a new ion refinery, but that construction of the refinery had taken so long, and had had to extend so far back into the past in order to allow ion production to start on time, that the Cathedral of Chalesm had now never been built in the first place. Picture postcards of the cathedral suddenly became immensely valuable.
“I spare not a single unit of thought on these cybernetic simpletons!” he boomed. “I speak of none but the computer that is to come after me!”
Fook was losing patience. He pushed his notebook aside and muttered, “I think this is getting needlessly messianic.”
“Alright,” said Deep Thought. “The Answer to the Great Question…”
“Of Life, the Universe, and Everything …” said Deep Thought.
“Is …” said Deep Thought, and paused.
“Forty-two,” said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.
“I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle,” he muttered to himself.
“Right,” said Ford, “I’m going to have a look.”
He glanced round at the others.
“Is no one going to say, ‘No you can’t possibly, let me go instead’?”
They all shook their heads.