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Book Review - The Restaurant at the Edge of the Universe by Douglas Adams (1980)
“It is worth repeating at this point…[humanity’s] peculiar habit of continually stating and restating the very very obvious. [The] first theory was that if humans didn't keep exercising their lips, their mouths probably seized up. After much observation he came up with a second theory:
‘If human beings don't keep exercising their lips, their brains start working.’”
Sometimes we need to just shut the hell up and laugh at the absurdity of it all. If Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series does nothing else, it should at least remind us of this crucial idea.
And I get it. This might sound like an unserious or naive blue-pilled take considering the immensely stressful times we are enduring. Economic collapse, plagues, mental health crises, high taxes, creeping mass surveillance, inflation, screen addiction, microplastics, political polarisation, and the inescapable impression that there aren’t enough hours in a day to process it all.
There aren’t. And there never will be.
Luckily though, there are doses of existential and mental consolation in the form of short and fun reads like The Restaurant at the Edge of the Universe.
I promise that Adams’ timeless and unavoidably uplifting fiction will boost the reader out of whatever subjective internal malaise they may be grappling with. For the brilliance of this novel lay in the unrelentingly comedic juxtaposition of Homosapien solipsism pitted against the expansive reality of the universe, its inherent mysteries, and mankind’s inability to either control or comprehend even a tiny fraction of it.
Items of Conceptual Reframing and Humility
As this is part two of the HG2G series, we are once again following the adventures of Earthling normie Arthur Dent and his alien comrades. This includes the eccentric two-headed galactic president Beeblebrox, HG2G journalist Ford Prefect, the last Homosapien woman alive - Trillian, and the clinically depressed Marvin the android.
Without getting too far into Hitchhiker lore, Arthur was swept up into Ford’s planet-jumping lifestyle as Earth was callously destroyed by the Vogons. This was done to make way for an intergalactic highway that our planet was obstructing. Much akin to our wanton disregard for various ecosystems when we need more expedient travel routes.
Unbeknownst to us was that the planet Earth was (currently is) a massive supercomputer (created by another supercomputer) programmed to figure out the answer to life itself. That answer was apparently “42”.
Unsatisfied with this, Earth was re-programmed to figure out what the question of life really is.
After millennia of processing the question to the question, Earth was annihilated and Arthur/Ford made a daring last-minute escape. Feel free to read more of the synopsis on your own because it has little to do with our concerns here.
After HG2G, the characters were set to grab a bite to eat. This leads to the ‘restaurant at the end of the universe’ (named Milliways) wherein the characters merely want to sit down and chow. Again this is thwarted as all our characters are swept back into ridiculous adventures revolving around a hunt for the ruler of the universe, stealing a dead rock star’s spaceship, being trapped on a planet with an entire population of mid-wits, and their trip to the actual restaurant itself.
Needless to say, this is and is intended to be, as zany and fantastical as it sounds. “Fuck ‘em’ if they can’t take a joke” as a wise man I once knew would frequently remark. Yet through all the dry, ironic, and wordy English humour of the novel, we are left with an item that reminiscently stands at the core of existence itself.
One that’s evocatively central to Albert Camus’ absurdist philosophy…the idea that we are hopelessly, and inescapably, in the grips of forces we cannot tame or steer.
Time, fate, fellow creatures, and our wills are but a few of the heavy hitters we constantly waging a silent war against.
In short, a lifelong battle against a degree of determinism that should compel us to accept the vast expanse of the universe and all the death, destruction, and hardship it could potentially catapult at us. As evil, unjustified, and cruel as one can imagine it to be.
Adams constantly reminds us that the best coping mechanism, regarding the brutality of life, is a good-natured smile. One that musters up enough strength to continuously soldier that Sisyphean boulder back up to the top of the proverbial hill.
This explains why REU contains two plot devices that struck me as particularly ingenious self-reflection experiments. The first is the ‘Total Perspective Vortex.
This is a machine one enters that “derives its picture of the whole universe on the principle of extrapolated matter analyses.” Adams explains how “every piece of matter in the universe is in some way affected by every other piece of matter. [Thus] it is possible to extrapolate the whole of creation - every sun, planet, orbit, their composition and their economic and social history from one small piece of fairy cake.”
The TPV’s primary aim with this whole process is to make the user fully cognizant of boundless space, of time itself, and the totality of being in relation to our singular infinitesimal existences.
The inventor of this contraption had his wife do the trial run and it fried her brain. With his later realisation that:
“If life is going to exist in a universe of this size, then it cannot afford to have a sense of proportion.”
Next, we have the actual Restaurant itself, Milliways. Which is less a place to eat than it is a place to see a nightly show that features nothing less than the end of the universe itself. In a magnificent display throughout the evening, patrons observe how the universe will eventually collapse on itself and various solar systems are destroyed and countless trillions of life forms are extinguished from existence forever.
Helluva show by most accounts. And they sprung for a half-decent host.
Again, in what should be the correct view about living in a slowly dying reality, customers of Milliways eat, drink, laugh, and converse about life and how bad the service is. Knowing full well they are watching a predictable and tragic reality they will likely not be alive to see, but one of which is most certainly destined to occur (through no fault or prevention of their own).
Helpless and hopeless observers downing drinks and amusing themselves to death.
Just Enjoy the Ride FFS
We are all patrons of Millways whether we like it or not.
Our lives will end, our civilizations will crumble, humanity may become extinct, our planet will become uninhabitable, the solar system will be sucked into a black hole, and the universe may hit a Big Crunch and completely reboot from scratch.
Seemingly making a joke of this whole ordeal of existence and consciousness. Everything that’s ever happened, and will happen, will be wiped from the grand scheme of things to restart anew. Or maybe just collapse into nothingness for eternity.
Who the fuck knows, I'm not an astrophysicist or quantum supercomputer. And it's obvious they don’t know either or it would be received wisdom being taught to high school students alongside photosynthesis and gravity.
Regardless of your age, politics, academic accreditation, wealth, or religious bent, The Restaurant at the Edge of the Universe will be a short and much-needed shot of existential comedy. The kind of novel you could read over a couple of days and be excited to frequently return to its whimsical and genuinely gladdening prose. You’ll start off feeling like a stink bug, but after reading this book will quickly transform into a transcendent firefly. Like all great sci-fi adventures should intend and accomplish.
So whether you are embroiled in some Twitter battle, grappling with a case of SAD, anxious about a microscopic virus, or sinking further into debt, just take a minute and reflect on the absurdity of it all.
How in an instant, without any warning whatsoever, our whole reality could be zapped into oblivion so intergalactic travellers can shave 0.001 lightyears off their route to the Crab Nebula.
But for the time being, you have a front-row seat to one of the greatest freak shows the universe has to offer. Enjoy it while you can ;)
RATING 4.1 / 5