Robert Sheckley's short story "Ask a Foolish Question" (1953) is about a sophisticated machine called Answerer which can answer any question but only those that are "valid", questions posed in terms that are suitable to lead to true answers. Queries like "what is life?" bounce off it uselessly, as it cannot answer such questions in terms that the questioner would understand.

It immediately put me in mind of Douglas Adams's Deep Thought computer, which famously takes millions of years to calculate the answer to "life, the universe, and everything" and comes up with an answer that is useless to the questioners because it's just a number that Douglas Adams randomly dreamed up.

Is there any connection between these two fictional ultimate answerers? Is there any evidence that Adams was directly inspired by Sheckley's story? Are both stories part of a broader trend/trope of ultimate answerers in speculative fiction, such that Adams's famous creation can't be traced back to one specific inspiration?

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    Duplicate of Why did Douglas Adams pick 42 as the ultimate answer?
    – Valorum
    Apr 21, 2023 at 18:12
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    @Valorum Nope, it doesn't. That's about why 42 was chosen as the ultimate answer, not about the inspiration for having a machine to give ultimate answers in the first place.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Apr 21, 2023 at 18:14
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    A more likely inspiration would be Asimov's The Last Question, surely. But AFAIK there's no evidence of either. Apr 21, 2023 at 20:58
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    There are also old jokes about computers that can answer any question, such as the one with the punchline "Yes, Robert Smith is at work in Nevada, but your father is fishing in Canada", and the Soviet one which changes the subject when asked about Russian grain production. Clarke's Tales From The White Hart has a military version. The all-knowing computer was a trope floating around at the time, picked up by a lot of people besides Adams. BTW, Happy Towel Day! May 25, 2023 at 8:09
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    "I was listening to an old interview with Adams about his influences, and he (with typical humility) said that the more he read of Robert Sheckley's writing, the more he realized that everything he'd been doing had already been done by Sheckley." Source is a reddit thread, alas w/o link to the original interview. reddit.com/r/books/comments/2ih57y/… May 25, 2023 at 9:19

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As a summary, there is at least a trope of robots that (probably) unintentionally undermine their inventor's intentions, Douglas Adams was an admirer of Robert Sheckley, but as of yet I have not discovered that Sheckley was a direct influence on Douglas' "Deep Thought" as a specific detail.

There have been for a long time SF robots constructed to guide mankind the way - a non-satirical (at least not intentionally satirical) is Gernsback's Ralph 124C41+ (it's right in the name, "one to foresee for one"). The supercomputer run by monks in Arthur Clarke's "Nine Billion Names Of God" works on a similarly existential question as Adams' robot (and given that the stars go out at the end of the story, it might be that the universe disappared to be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable). Stanislav Lem has created a whole universe by itself of robots (often created by other robots) that sabotage their creators by being whimsically literally minded (apparently the universe is mostly empty because Trurl was so exasperated by the stubbornness of his "can create everything" machine that he told it to create "nothing"). Lem is relevant, because Adams said in an interview that was aware and a fan of Lem.

Douglas was also aware, and an admirer, of Sheckley. There is some second hand evidence is a reddit thread here (with a post quoting an unreferenced interview where Douglas apparently said that everything he did had been previously done by Sheckley). A somewhat more direct source is a Wired interview with Writer Tom Gerencer, who gives this statement:

“In the course of becoming a fan of Douglas Adams, I read some interview snippets with him; I think it was in Neil Gaiman’s book Don’t Panic, which has some interviews with Douglas Adams in it. But in there, he asks Douglas Adams about Robert Sheckley—this controversy about ‘people say you’ve copied Robert Sheckley,’ and Douglas Adams is like, ‘Well, I had never read his stuff, but when I did I was like, “Wow, it’s really similar to my stuff.”‘

So naturally I looked this up in Gaiman's book. Not only are the two quotes above embellishments, also the timeline does not fit.

Robert Sheckley's name is mentioned three times (within an single question and answer) in the Gaiman-Adams interview. The actual q/a is

[adams] ... people kept saying, "if your write this stuff, you must know the work of Robert Sheckley?"

[gaiman] I assumed you must have read Sheckley's "Dimension of Miracles"

[adams] People kept saying that, so I finally sat down and read it, and it was quite creepy. The guy who constructed Earth... it was completely fortituous. Those are coincidences, and after all there are only a small number of ideas. I felt what I did was more akin to Sheckley than Vonnegut.

Gaiman's "Don't Panic" was first published in 1988, and the mention of Sheckley is somewhat casual. What is weird is that apparently Adams's was on record as a fan of Sheckely rather earlier than that.

There is an interview on Darker Matter, purporting to be transcribed from a penthouse interview done in 1979 (published on the website in 2007), where Adams says the following:

"I have done. The SF writers I like best are the ones who are funny, and there are not many of them. Robert Sheckley. He's a very, very funny writer. He's also a stylist. Very few science fiction writers write English well. Robert Sheckley can.

"So Sheckley... and another guy I'm very fond of is Stanislav Lem, a Polish writer who has been superbly translated into English. That's doubly impressive because it's a very densely verbal style, with lots of word play. Translating it into English must have been extraordinarily difficult, and in many cases it's been very well done.

So we know that Adams was aware of Sheckley by the time he worked on the original HHGTTG radio play, even if the did not quite remember it in later interviews.

Wikipedia has a small paragraph on the similarities between HHGTTG and the (much earlier) Sheckley work it is usually compared to:

Similarity with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Dimension of Miracles (1968) has been cited as similar to Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1978). In an interview for Neil Gaiman's book Don't Panic: The Official Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Companion, Adams said he had not read anything by Sheckley until after writing the Guide (the first volume in the series) and having seen it printed, and later found some of the parallels between the two works to be eerie, but after all a coincidence. Gaiman, in an interview two decades later, and five years after Adams' death, paraphrased Adams' comments saying that some of the resemblances had been "disturbingly close."

So there is a probable influence. If this extends to the literary creation of "Deep Thought" is hard to tell. No positive proof, but it seems that Adams' memory is not necessarily something that can be relied upon, so there might have been something subconscious/unintentional going on.

  • After reading "Dimension of Miracles" I can see the similarities, but it seems to be a Townsend vs. Sheeran situation rather than any sort of plagiarism (the comparison is particularly apt since, with no disrespect to Douglas Adams, the earlier work is actually better). May 28, 2023 at 7:14

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