The Meaning of Life

John Anderson’s Surprising Discovery

Every time I go to the university I get lost in that architectural hodgepodge! Some of the buildings are hexacenturies old, which I find hard to imagine. At least this time, I found the building without help. Just before I decided to ask for help I found a glass door, etched and painted with the stark characters of Fjarnian script: “Dr. Bobo Lornifar, ApD; Department of Anthropology.” I paused with my right hand on the door latch and admired the humble understatement. Thorgelfaynese are modest-but it is generally characteristic of Homelanders of any nationality that they make lousy braggarts.

I opened the door and saw his secretary hunched over a computer keyboard, typing away madly. Lanni has an exceptionally dark complexion; she’s so black she almost appears blue! She’s one of those women who are blessed with considerable natural beauty, but she acts as though she is quite unaware of it. Instead, she oozes professional competence and expertise out of every pore. (A secretary in Thorgelfayne is more like a partner-in-training.) She was so absorbed in her work that she did not hear me come in.

“Excuse the intrusion, but is Bobo around?” I inquired. She looked up startled, then greeted me like an old friend. It is wonderful to live in a place where even strangers act like your best friend, but it does take some getting used to.

“I am sooo sorry,” she said with a deceptively Jamaican lilt, “Bobo is out of the province right now.” I pressed her for details, but she admitted that he had actually left the Duchy, so his return would not be imminent. I was very intrigued by this, since I still have a lot to learn about foreign countries here on Homeland, and I was very eager to find out what exotic and wonderful place he would be visiting and why. She was clearly embarrassed. He had gone to the Federated Provinces (that is, the United States) on planet Earth and would not return until the first of the year! “Oh,” I said quietly, “then I guess he’s not available this weekend!”

We shared a hearty laugh; then she explained that she was simply being modest on his behalf. Interstellar travel is a status symbol, and mentioning one’s travels ostentatiously is neither kind nor fashionable. (That’s how I found out he’d be dropping by your house upon arrival, Ken. Lanni told me that Bobo apparently forgot to mail his letter announcing his arrival. She didn’t find it and mail it until a week after he left. So if he got there before the letter did, that’s why.)

Anyway, we got to talking about the time I was mugged by a Hugmup in the park. (Lanni is the one who translated my article about that experience and mailed it to you.) I told her that it was nearly the bleakest day in my life until I was finally mugged.

“It was one of those days,” I told Lanni, “when there just doesn’t seem to be any meaning in life.”

She laughed like it was a joke, and stopped abruptly when she realized I hadn’t meant it that way. Then she apologized, explaining that I was new to Homeland and could not possibly know about the meaning of life. I was even more confused, but she raised a finger in a just-a-moment gesture, arose from her chair, and opened up an old blue file cabinet. After some rummaging around in it for a few minutes, she pulled out a thick book and handed it to me.

Concluding Symposium on the Meaning of Life, read the title. Below that in smaller letters, it said: International Hexadecade on the Meaning of Life. It was dated 17 Fourthmonth 457F, roughly twenty-five years ago.

“I don’t understand this,” I said, puzzled. Lanni explained to me that the international hexadecade of the meaning of life was held during the seventies. Philosophers and theologians got together to party, to have some fun, and to ponder this very question. They came to a definitive and unanimous conclusion and issued this report. She offered to loan it to me if I cared to read it.

Now this was getting a bit strange. I looked at her skeptically, wondering if I had gotten trapped in some absurd science fiction novel. “This will take some time to read,” I observed. She nodded. Half-fearing the answer would be twenty-three or something dumb like that, I asked, “Just what is the meaning of life?”

“It’s so simple,” she sighed, “you’d think we could have figured it out without an entire hexadecade of concerted study. Of course you really have to read that whole book to understand it fully.” She glanced out the window briefly as she chose her words, “They concluded by saying: ‘sentience alone endues existence with significance’.”

“Can you paraphrase that into non-technical Thorgelfaynese?” I asked.

“Yes. It means that there is no meaning to life at all,” she explained. Then she smiled, “That’s the part you’re supposed to add!”

I spent quite a bit of time with her. She wanted to know all sorts of things about Earth; mainly customs, holidays, and things like that. It’s downright embarrassing what a trained anthropologist can figure out from stuff like that.

But I took the book home. I think I have some reading to do.