The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: Serious philosophy camouflaged as comedy

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams science fiction book reviewsThe Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams

The HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY series can be enjoyed on many levels, so it’s tough to decide how to review it. On the surface, it’s just a zany series of dry British humorous skits ala Monty Python, but when you dig deeper, Douglas Adams has a lot to say about life, the universe, and everything. Taken as a whole, he presents a consistent philosophy that our universe is impossibly huge beyond our comprehension, and our attempts to understand it are woefully inadequate. But we shouldn’t get too upset about it, because it’s much better not to take things overly seriously. Just sit back and enjoy the show, folks. It’s an amazing place.

I could try to describe the plot in a linear fashion, but there just isn’t much point. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is a series of hilarious set pieces that give opportunities for Adams to deliver some incredibly funny and irreverent comments about people and aliens and just how ridiculous they can be. Considering that the series began as a BBC radio series and also became a TV series and stage show, it’s easy to see how it has evolved this way.

As always, Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect are an enjoyable pair of comic bumblers, while Zaphod Beeblebrox remains the absurdly egocentric ex-President of the Galaxy, and my personal favorite remains Marvin the Paranoid Robot, who has a brain the size of a planet but is only given an endless series of menial tasks, causing severe depression on his part. There is also a large supplementary cast with unforgettable names, such as Zarniwoop, Roosta, Gargravarr, the Ruler of the Universe, the Golgofrinchans, and fascinating creations like The Total Perspective Vortex:

When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says “You are here.

The story doesn’t make a lick of sense, and since Adams is intent on showing the absurdity of attempting to make sense of the immensity of the universe, it doesn’t have to. As I listened to the audiobook, I had trouble understanding what was happening, but instead keyed in on the sublime one-liners and crazy situations the characters found themselves in.

Speaking of audio narrators, Martin Freeman does the honors for this book and its sequels, whereas the brilliant comedian Stephen Fry narrated The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. That performance was so perfect that it would be hard for anyone to top it — in fact, I always recommend that book for any of the many audiobook skeptics I encounter. But Martin Freeman is no slouch — he played Arthur Dent in the 2005 film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the main character in the original UK The Office television series, Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy of films, and Watson in the UK Sherlock TV series. I’m a huge fan of dry British humor, and Freeman really does a bang-up job of creating a host of unique character voices.

His one choice that struck a discordant note was giving Zaphod Beeblebrox, one-time President of the Galaxy, a Bronx accent more suited to a hotdog stand operator. The accent itself is excellent — but it doesn’t really fit the character. I got used to it, but it wasn’t my favorite. The most important voice in my mind is Marvin the Paranoid Robot. If Freeman can nail his lines, all else is forgiven. And Freeman is well suited for self-deprecating misery — his most famous television role is as the downtrodden office worker tormented by Ricky Gervais, after all. Fortunately he pulled it off very nicely.

Once again I’ll finish this review with a classic Marvin quote. At one point Marvin gets left behind in a parking lot by the main characters for 576 billion years as they leap forward in time but not in place:

The first ten million years were the worst, and the second ten million years, they were the worst too. The third ten million I didn’t enjoy at all. After that I went into a bit of a decline. The best conversation I had was over forty million years ago…. And that was with a coffee machine.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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  1. Ulrike /

    Excellent timing for this review. I just listened to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for the first time last month, and I haven’t yet purchased The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

    • Well, I would be keen to hear your opinion on Martin Freeman’s take on Douglas Adams vs Stephen Fry’s – both great in their own ways.

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