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THE RESTAURANT AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE
1980

Book cover artists not credited.
Review © 1999, 2010 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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The second Hitchhikers novel picks up right where the first left off and incorporates still many of the story elements found in the radio show, the first incarnation of this irrepressibly goofy and perennially popular SF comedy hit machine. Under attack by the vile Vogons for stealing the Heart of Gold, the brand new starship powered by the Infinite Improbability Drive, former Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox (with the chronically depressed robot Marvin in tow) finds himself plucked away to Ursa Minor Beta, the homeworld of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy publishing offices. There he must locate Zarniwoop, a fellow who can help him (he assumes) unlock the locked-away portions of his minds — remember, Zaphod has two heads — and, from there, locate the being who is really in charge of the Galaxy after all. Will he, and we, ever learn the Question to the Answer to life, the universe, and everything?

Plot logic is not a high priority here. The agenda is madcap fun, and so as the story races along pell-mell in whatever direction it feels like, the best thing to do is just go along with it. Although in fairness to Adams' singular brand of comic genius it must be said that it all does make a kind of sense in its own loopy and inexplicable way. What made this series really work when Adams was at the top of his form was more than just the concentrated, rapid-fire absurdity. Adams is genuinely exploring the Big Questions — of ontology, of our very purpose in existence, and the meaning (or lack thereof) of our eventual fate — with broad farce that makes those questions seem less ominous, frightening, intellectually and existentially intimidating. It's no accident that Adams can count scientists and philosophers among his most ardent admirers. He could, with the edge of his wit, bring the awesomeness of all existence down to a manageable level. There's an old joke about how to be less anxious in a job interview: just imagine the interviewer in his underwear. You might say that's how Adams takes the anxiety out of life, the universe, and everything. He just presents it all to us in its underwear.

This is far and away my favorite entry in the madcap saga, with some truly inspired moments of lunacy, such as the bit where an unarmed Marvin defeats a devastatingly powerful battle robot (a bit which had me gasping for breath hearing the radio show, though it was cut from the TV series); or the explanation of how the Hitchhiker's Guide copied its explanation of the "geo-social" nature of the universe off a cereal box; or Dr. Dan Streetmentioner's Time Travelers' Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations, which teaches you how to speak in the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional. The entire sequence at Milliways, the titular restaurant, however, has been a source of bellylaughs ever since I first heard the radio show all these years ago. Many authors have tried, but few have managed to match Adams' inventiveness as he calmly hurtles us across unfathomable gulfs of time and space. You might feel as if you need a good stiff Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster after voyaging through Douglas Adams' cracked cosmos, but don't panic...Bon appetit!

Followed by Life, the Universe and Everything.