Many times profound statements and observations are buried within the serious and the dramatic; the comedic and the lighthearted get dismissed as simple entertainment with not much substance. But with a writer like Douglas Adams, the slightly absurd nature of the story and the lighthearted delivery don’t mean there aren’t deep observations being presented. The second novel in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe continues to point out the absurdities of life with profound eloquence.
As the Vogons attempt to destroy the ship carrying Arthur, Trillian, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Ford Prefect, and Marvin, some last minute maneuvering and assistance sets the quintet on a mission to meet the man who controls the universe. Zaphod had the plan laid out before having his memory wiped so he and his companions are at the mercy of those whom he no longer remembers agreed to help him. They’re also still trying to get Arthur to generate the Question to which forty-two was the answer in the great experiment that was Earth (a carry-over from the first novel). But as they learn when they find themselves at Milliways (the titular Restaurant at the End of the Universe), you don’t always get to where you want to go the way you thought you would get there, and when you get there, it may not be what you expected.
My favorite aspects of the book remain Adams’ wonderfully quotable exchanges and the characters (particularly Arthur and Marvin). While I’m not overly fond of Zaphod as a character, much of the book was centered on him and the odd position in which he found himself, the other characters mostly along for the ride. There is a lot of subtext to what Zaphod faces, however, that deals with self-awareness and the way that we, as people, change over time. I found myself highlighting passages in this short novel left and right, something I haven’t done extensively since graduate school. Adams’ ability to perfectly phrase his ideas is amazingly clear, concise, and yet the ideas’ complexity is neither lost nor undermined.
While I still haven’t seen any film adaptation of any book in this series, I have learned that in one version Martin Freeman was cast as Arthur and, though I’ve heard the adaptation is terrible (to be honest, given the nature of the story, I find the idea of any kind of adaptation difficult to fathom), I can understand why they would cast him. As I was reading, I couldn’t help hearing him speaking Arthur’s dialogue. His style of delivery and disbelief simply is that character. As the main human character, Arthur is very much meant to be the reader’s mirror. Of course, many also identify strongly with Marvin the “Paranoid Android.” While it could be easy to find the characters’ reliance on Marvin as their way out of messes to be a repetitive plot device, Marvin’s awareness of their tendency to do this turns it into a running joke.
Because of the nature of science fiction in general and of this series in particular, it’s very difficult to describe or discuss the books without going into too much detail. The scene and characters jump around at an almost confusing rate with histories of planets, races, and characters interspersed along the way. It can be disorienting for anyone who prefers more detailed world building and cohesion between the components presented. But if you can keep yourself from getting hung up on those kinds of particulars, these books can be a wonderful change of pace from more dour and somber novels that deal with the same themes.