Classic book review: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams

(cover image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

The more things, the more they stay the same.

This oft-repeated and frankly rather over-used phrase, which simultaneously sounds both very wise and extraordinarily obvious, is proof positive that humanity has a predilection for repeating its errant behaviour over and over again, no matter how disastrous or comically awful the results may be.

We are, in other words, creatures of habit, and whether it’s a result of evolution, great big existential ruts or simply a staggering lack of imagination, the fact is that people by and large tend to keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

Why is that, you might wonder?

One person who obviously gave the conundrum quite a bit of thought was Douglas Adams, the celebrated writer of the always iconic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, originally published in 1979 following the massive success of the BBC4 radio series a year earlier, who spends a great deal of time in the second book in his “trilogy”, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980) musing on and mercilessly parodying humanity inability to see often beyond its own navel.

“The Universe, as has been observed before, is an unsettlingly big place, a fact which for the sake of a quiet life most people tend to ignore …

For instance, in one corner of the Eastern Galactic Arm lies the large forest planet Oglaroon, the entire ‘intelligent’ population of which lives permanently in one fairly small and crowded nut tree. In which tree they are born, live, fall in love, carve tiny speculative articles in the bark on the meaning of life, the futility of death and the importance of birth control, fight a few extremely minor wars, and eventually die strapped to the underside of some of the less accessible tree branches.

In fact the only Oglaroons who ever leave their tree are those who are hurled out of it for the heinous crime of wondering whether any of the other trees might be capable of supporting life at all, or indeed whether the other trees are anything other than illusions brought on by eating too many Oglanuts.” (PP. 56-57)

Picking up almost right after the events of the first book, the novel, which is as insanely funny and bitingly clever as its predecessor, takes aim at the prevailing inclination of people, not just on Earth but throughout the galaxy, to limit their view of the world around quite spectacularly.

It’s an understandable dynamic on one level, Adams admits, since the Universe is so big, vast and daunting that dealing with it on its own terms is rather terrifying.

But unlike Ford Perfect, who treats the galaxy as a great place to explore or Zaphod Beeblebrox who’s constantly looking for things to exploit and use for his own benefit, most people respond to this massiveness but essentially sticking their heads in the sand.

It’s soothing true, especially if you don’t mind lots of sand endlessly clogging your mouth, but it’s not always immensely useful or productive.

It’s not only the Oglaroons (see the above quote) who struggle with the challenge of making the vastness of everything feel intimate and relatable, but pretty much everyone, all of us awed to the point of catatonic, immobilising small mindedness.

Douglas Adams (image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

Not everyone is like this, of course, which is why Milliways, The titular The Restaurant at the End of the Universe exists at all, straddling the near-end and the end of the universe, safe from destruction due to a cosy forcefield which shuts the nasty of oblivion out quite nicely.

If there weren’t enough people willing to journey hundreds of millions of years into the future and then go back again, to watch the end of all things even as they sit safe in the knowledge it won’t directly to them, then the restaurant would be out of business.

But diners keep turning up, time and again, stuck amidst a slew of competing and frankly confusing tenses (with which Adams has an amusing field day) and the restaurant keeps treating them to a visceral experience like no other.

Thing is though these people are in the minority, something Ford and Arthur, who still none too impressed to be among the last two humans left alive in the galaxy along with Zaphod’s girlfriend Trillian, discover firsthand when they end up on a ship, for reasons best not disclosed (SPOILERS!), that’s heading to a planet with a bunch of colonists onboard, the lead settlers, so they’re told, for an entire race.

Much of the hilarity of this section of the book rests on a great many things that can’t be disclosed lest the impact of the comedy loses its guffawing edge, but suffice to say, on a planet ripe with possibility, its newly-installed inhabitants display an hilarious lack of ability to do be anything but laugh-out-loud, forehead-slapping myopic.

“Looking over his shoulder Arthur saw that he was twiddling with knobs on a small black box. Ford had already introduced this box to Arthur as a Sub-Etha Sens-O-Matic, but Arthur had merely nodded absently and not pursued the matter. In his mind the Universe still divided into two parts – the Earth, and everything else. The Earth having been demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass meant that this view of things was a little lopsided , but Arthur tended to cling to that lopsidedness as being his last remaining contact with his home. Sub-Etha Sens-O-Matics belonged firmly in the ‘everything else’ category.” (P. 158)

It mystifies Ford particularly and leaves Arthur gobsmacked especially when it becomes obvious – to them, at least – which planet they have landed on, and what the frightfully funny lack of imagination of the ship load of new settlers is going to lead to somewhere known along the track.

Along the way to one of the most glorious pieces of parody known to humanity, one that features a disproportionate numbers of hairdressers, telephone sanitisers and hairdressers, readers can thrill and laugh out aloud about existentially-introspective elevators, the calming torture of the Total Perspective Vortex, planets whose entire ecology can be changed by noisy concerts and the enticing allure of stepping into your own duplicated universe where things may not be ideal but where they are not as bad as the one we actually inhabit.

There is so much witty, sharp observation brilliantly shoehorned into a book of just 200 consistently and perfectly entertaining pages that the urge to wallow in it and repeat every amusing paragraph you come across (which is all of them) to people around you is damn near irresistible.

The inestimable joy of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is that it manages, like the novel that precedes it, to be incredibly smart, narratively substantial and loopily funny all at once.

While humanity may not be, for the most part, willing or able to take outlandish steps into a scarily big beyond and are limited by this fearsome lack of bravado or vision, people like Adams, who sadly passed away in 2001 but whose voice remains as relevant as ever, are not, and it is to our great benefit, and side-splittingly funny amusement, that we are the recipients of books as comedically wise as The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

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