Sunday, July 01, 2007

Book Review: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

The second book in Douglas Adams' series finds our intrepid crew in search of something to eat. But not before Arthur Dent has jammed the computers on the ship, The Heart of Gold, with his request for a simple cup of tea. At that moment the Volgon ship captain, the one responsible for destroying Earth five minutes before the super-intelligent beings who built it could uncover The Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, has the ship in his sites. He is following the directions of his "private brain care specialist" and is intent on destroying said ship.

Desperate, Zaphod Beeblebrox, former President of the Galaxy; Trillian, a former resident of Earth Zaphod picked up at a party six months ago; Ford Prefect, a field reporter for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; and Arthur call up Zaphod's great-grandfather, Zaphod Beeblebrox the Fourth. He gives them all some very cryptic advice that's of no help whatsoever. Arthur hits the Improbability Drive and the crew is dispersed to unknown corners of the Universe.

Zaphod finds himself, along with Marvin the always-depressed robot, on the planet where The Guide is published. A thought pops into his head: he must find Zarniwoop, the publisher. And he must find the man who rules the Universe.

The rest of the crew is still on board The Heart of Gold, along with a teapot, some milk, and best of all, real tea. They have been told to sit tight and wait. And, with nothing better to do, they follow instructions.

Zaphod finds Zarniwoop, discovers a few more things about himself, and eventually is reunited with his ship and crew. Still hungry, Zaphod orders the ship to take them to the nearest place to eat.

"Sure thing!" the ship responds cheerfully. And the bridge explodes.

When our crew wakes up, they are at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Ford gets drunk, the cow that will be their meal introduces himself, and they discover that Marvin, who had been left behind on a distant planet by Zaphod, is in the parking lot, parking cars. The gang goes to the lot and steals a ship moments before the universe ends.

Not just any ship. This ship is a drone that will crash into a solar flare as part of a concert by the band Disaster Area. And there is nothing they can do to divert it. However, Marvin reveals that the Question to Life, the Universe, and Everything is imprinted on the brainwaves of Arthur. Not that it will help them any.

Marvin doesn't get a chance to tell them because Arthur finds an teleporter and the crew escapes. Trillian and Zaphod are back on The Heart of Gold; Arthur and Ford are somewhere else. Zarniwoop also is aboard The Heart of Gold, still intent on finding the Man Who Rules the Universe. Arthur and Ford find themselves on a very different type of ship heading out who knows where.

Do Trillian, Zaphod and Zarniwoop meet the Man Who Rules the Universe? Do Arthur and Ford discover the Question to the Ultimate Answer in Arthur's brain? What happens to Marvin?

You'll have to read the book. And, most probably, read the next one as well. This is a series, after all.

And, like The Hitchhiker's Guide, most of the pleasure is in the journey, not the end. Just when you think you have the story and plot figured out, the Improbability Drive kicks in and everything changes. I found myself laughing out loud, but completely unable to explain to my family exactly why. It's all in the set-up, you see. Or you will if you read the book.

On the March Hare scale: 4 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks.

P.S. I will say that having read this book--or some version of it for it has appeared as a BBC TV series, on all sorts of records, cassettes, and CDs, a computer game, a bath towel, and, finally, a movie--I feel like I've been initiated into a secret club where the answer to any question is "42" and the password is "So long and thanks for all the fish." If you can sing it, you're hardcore.

I realized this when, at a recent family outing to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom (formerly Marine World-Africa USA), I mentioned to the young woman at the Dolphin pool that dolphins are the third most intelligent species on Earth. Humans are the second. When I told her mice were the most intelligent, she looked rather skeptical, but her co-worker who came in on the middle of the conversation said, "That's that movie!" And started singing "So Long and Thanks for All the Fish." They hadn't realized it was a book. I think I piqued their interest.

So, dear college students, home for the summer and working what appears to be a boring and meaningless job, stay open to the possibilities. You never know what gems might be thrown into your lap by a stranger. :)