Occasionally my excitement for things that I used to love is reignited, and not so long ago I found my it lit up for the classic BBC TV sci-fi comedy show, Red Dwarf. It's always had a soft-spot in my heart (and undoubtedly will), and I decided to re-read the classic novels written by Rob Grand and Doug Naylor.
After seriously enjoying Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers and Better Than Life (the first two books), I decided to give the subsequent solo novels another go and see how I felt about them; Doug Naylor's Last Human and Rob Grant's Backwards.
For those who are unaware, or may have forgotten, Doug Naylor and Rob Grant wrote the first two Red Dwarf novels together (under the pseudonym Grant Naylor), but after a split in their working relationship and an aborted attempt to write a third novel together, they separately wrote two completely unrelated sequels. Unlike their work together, which was well received, their individual efforts received mixed reviews, especially from fans.
Here were my immediate reactions after reading them again:
Backwards by Rob Grant
I've just finished re-reading Backwards and I have to say that I'd forgotten how completely brilliant it was. I'd forgotten just what a good, satisfying well-paced read it is. I was also surprised (and perhaps pleased) at how little was taken from the TV series. In all, there were four ideas taken from three episodes: Backwards (obviously), Dimension Jump (the idea of Ace Rimmer) and Gunmen of the Apocalypse (pretty much the whole show, including the idea of xenophobic battledroids hunting humans).
Only really Gunmen was referred to heavily (which was an odd choice considering how much of that show was based on visual humour), and even then almost all of the dialogue was different (unlike the first two novels which copied dialogue verbatim, more often than not, when taking things from the TV series). The other ideas taken from the series were expanded and changed considerably, even more so than the first two novels.
For whatever reason, it seemed as though Grant was trying very hard not to use too much from the series, and thankfully it's not to the book's detriment.
Despite feeling like a fairly large tome, the story runs at an incredibly comfortable pace. You really get the idea that Grant could have just happily kept on writing and writing and, interestingly, I don’t think the reader would have gotten bored, either. Maybe because of this, the ending does appear a tad rushed and/or abrupt (although this may just be an illusion caused by the spelling errors that even made their way into the final chapters of paperback edition).
Still, despite it’s size and apparently rushed ending, it’s a incredibly cohesive and satisfying read. I don’t think I really noticed the journey that Rimmer goes through when I first read it (no idea why, perhaps I was too young to pick up on it), but this time it was clear to me that he was the backbone of the whole story.
There was at least one missed opportunity by Grant, though: A scene where an uptight Rimmer and a reluctant Ace talk in private to try and figure out where their lives diverged would have been utterly priceless (and could have set up the epilogue nicely, too). Bizarrely this undoubtedly interesting conversation is replaced by the “wrap things up quickly” scene from the TV series (where Lister has sudden and amazing insider-information on where the change took place). Ah, well, in another universe, perhaps.
Rimmer's personality is reset to “bastard mode”, which doesn't fit continuity from the warmer person he changed into when Lister grew older in the second book. That said, it's no surprise, as Rimmer generally works better as a character when he's at his most antagonistic, and it felt like the right starting off point for the book.
(As an aside; is it just me, or is that chapter featuring a teenage Cat and a young nubile woman in a gingham dress just a little bit weird/creepy/disturbing/wrong? Why is it in there?)
In all it was a great read, much better than even I remembered or expected. I ordered a copy of Last Human to see if it could impress as well.
Last Human by Doug Naylor
I made it 50 pages into Last Human, and I just couldn’t take any more… It’s very funny, don’t get me wrong, and there’s some brilliant lines, but it doesn't feel right. Reading it was like driving in a car in dire need of a mechanic; It looks OK and is driveable, but it keeps making such horrendous and unhealthy noises that you don't want go keep going.
For a start, Naylor clearly has no issue with messing with the entire Red Dwarf canon. Take for example, Rimmer's inferiority complex regarding his more successful brothers. Whereas Grant thoroughly explored these issues, and used them as the backbone to his entire story (turning them into something we could all relate to in process), Naylor says they're all down to the fact that Rimmer didn't get a memory implant when he was a boy. Not an inferiority complex as much as actually being inferior. Not only is the explanation completely unrelateable to the reader, but it's also completely illogical: Why doesn't he buy a memory implant now, as a grown man?
The fact that this character-changing line is tossed away in such an unemotional manner is unfortunately indicative of the care and thought seen elsewhere into the book. Another example is the amount of pseudo-science, that not only doesn’t hold up to even the tiniest bit of scrutiny, but also disregards everything we know about the Red Dwarf universe.
All over the place random scientific sounding bits and bobs that are tossed into the story and dialogue without explanation. All of a sudden even the Cat is an astrophysicist. Things like “unused time lines” (how can a parallel universe be considered "unused"? We can supposedly visit them, so do the people living in them consider their universe "unused"?) or the fact that Starbug has a “Hubble telescope” installed (I mean, come on) are just horrible.
I guess Doug would argue that it’s all about entertaining readers, and don't care about the science and technology (so long as it sounds ok), they just want a laugh, and while I can definitely agree that Last Human tries very hard to tickle your rib bones (and succeeds very often, too), I have to ask; if you're going to do the science-fiction without the science, why bother?
Reading both books gave me a very strong idea of who did what in the Red Dwarf universe. Doug Naylor was clearly the man with the funny one-liners but, unfortunately for his book, no grasp of characterisation and no exploration of ideas or concepts. Rob Grant’s book feels deeper and more satisfying, with the laughs tickling your brain more than your ribs, but it's also much heavier by comparison. The writers seem like two parts of the same brain.
When they merge they turn from two funny, talented guys into one hilarious, unique, sublime, gestalt entity. I hope they work together again at some point.
Grant Naylor, are you out there?