Thursday, November 24, 2016

Book Review: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Title: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Author: Douglas Adams

Author's (memorial) web site:

Date: 1980

Publisher: Pocket Books

ISBN: 0-671-53264-2

Length: 250 pages

Quote: “A…computer had to be built to find out what the actual question was. And this computer, which was called the earth, was so large that it was frequently mistaken for a planet…Sadly, however, just before the critical moment of read-out, the Earth was unexpectedly demolished by the Vogons to make way—so they claimed—for a new hyperspace bypass, and so all hope of discovering the meaning of life was lost for ever. Or so it would seem. Two of these strange, apelike creatures survived. Arthur Dent…and…Tricia McMillan—or Trillian…are all that remains of the greatest experiment ever conducted—to find the Ultimate Question and the Ultimate Answer of Life, the Universe and everything. And, less than half a million miles from where their starship is drifting lazily through the inky blackness of space, a Vogon ship is moving slowly toward them.”

What’s to be taken seriously about the five-volume Hitchhiker’s Trilogy, in which The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is volume two? Not the science-fiction clichés of which the whole comic sequence is a parody. Not the apocalypse(s)—plural—the whole idea was that, per science-fiction clichés of the 1970s, the universe ends in so many just-noticeably-different ways that it’s possible for any self-respecting time-travel scientist to build a colossally profitable tourist attraction  on the time warp that allows visitors to see the end of the universe, wait for the one they want if they can afford it, and swing back through time to enjoy dinner. Not the science-versus-religion jokes…

Douglas Adams was a Christian teenager. As a young man, he declared himself an atheist due to the usual philosophical problems with the suffering of innocent animals. (Large and sardonic though he was, anyone who’s read Last Chance to See or, in fact, any of his work, knows that he was very sensitive to the suffering of innocent animals.) 

During the 1980s, when the rest of the end of the baby-boom generation were laughing ourselves silly over the Hitchhiker’s Trilogy, a serious book was written exposing and denouncing the atheist elements in, I think it was either the first three or four of the five volumes. I remember reading that book, too, and being underwhelmed. I would describe the Hitchhiker’s Trilogy as an agnostic series, in which Adams made fun of Christian clichés, atheist clichés, Buddhist clichés, and any other clichés he could think of, with a primary goal of evoking hysterical if not positively orgasmic howls of laughter on every college campus in the English-speaking world. 

Some people who claimed to know Adams personally claimed to think he was drifting back in the direction of faith before his untimely death. He’d retired from writing, so his readers wouldn’t know…I suspect he was on the side of the angels all along, anyway. He wrote as if he were.The comedy in his books was consistently about as snarky and cynical as comedy can get, but it was never mean; it never left readers feeling really discouraged, the way e.g. Woody Allen and Steve Martin sometimes did.

Later Adams wrote that the central idea behind the Hitchhiker’s Trilogy was a set of different possible ways the Universe could come to an end, and in this volume Arthur and Trillian experience one of them. In the end of the universe they observe, the most devout members of an alien religious cult are waiting for the second coming of their prophet, who has been missing previous Ends of the Universe for years…and this evening, while their humanoid alien friend Ford is getting drunk, his cousin Zaphod is acting like a jerk, and Marvin the depressive robot is helping park spacecraft outside, the prophet returns.

This is in between the two near-certain-death scenes in which they’re rescued by the Infinite Improbability Drive, before Ford and Arthur are separated from Zaphod and Trillian, and stuck (until the next volume) with the Golgafrinchan colonists who brought the genes for yuppie-type stupidity to Earth. 

I can’t review this book (or series or writer) impartially. They came along at the right moment in my early life. I thought I’d memorized all the jokes while wearing out my copy (after putting considerable wear on two libraries’ copies) in college, yet I still can’t read any Hitchhiker book without laughing.

So, if you want to use laughter to reduce stress and relieve pain, these books are highly recommended. I’m even willing to part with…one of my copies…of this particular volume, because I have a more recent one, in better condition. The one I’m willing to sell in real life is in very bad condition indeed by now, with the back cover gone and the front cover torn. The ones I’ll sell you online readers will come from Amazon and have both front and back covers in place.

Regrettably, Douglas Adams no longer has any use for a dollar, so if you find a better deal than $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment, feel free to buy this book elsewhere. If you want to support this web site, send payment to either address at the very bottom of the screen, and feel free to add either the rest of the Trilogy or any reasonable number of Fair Trade Books to the package for the same $5 shipping charge.