Holoship: or, Love Stories

Love stories and science fiction are not always words that are spoken in the same sentence, unless that sentence was “I love science fiction stories,” or “Fiction stories love science,” but the last one seems a bit unnusual. Regardless, there has been a rich and long history of love stories in science fiction; some beautifully written, and able to stand up to any other literature. Others were crass and ugly, written with the slapdash resolve most commonly associated with the worst of romance paperbacks.

I think that Holoship fits well into the first category, but not so much in the standard ways.

However, if you’ll pardon this intrusion (as Frankenstein’s monster said) I’ll take a moment to give you all a brief history of love stories in science fiction. The Lovers (1961) by Philip José Farmer is among the most famous; it began as a novella of the same name in 1952, and was later expanded into novel form by Farmer. The story was very controversial at the time it was published for its treatment of sex, a theme that grew more prominent in the 60s, when Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology series took hold of the SF population. Strangers (1978) by Gardner Dozois is among the most lyrical, sad novels ever written, the story of love between human and alien, and all that that entails. It also began as a novella – in 1974 – and was expanded to novel format. Another famous love story, this time a short story, was Frederik Pohl’s “Day Million” (1966), which centered around love in Earth’s post-human future.

No doubt there are other examples, but those three represent the idea of SF love stories at their peak. In much SF, particularly space opera, there is some aspect of the story that deals with love, but it is usually not the main part of the story, which makes the purely SF-nal love story an even greater rarity.

What would that make a comedy SF love story, then? Something very rare indeed, it would seem. Yet comedy and SF and, indeed, love stories seem to come together very well in the hands of skilled writers, such as those particular hands of Messrs. Robert Grant and Douglas Naylor.

Let’s take a look at the first scene. There are some obvious comparisons to the beginning and the end, but these seem to be mostly superficial. The parallels it draws are perhaps a tad too obvious upon rewatching the episode, and has perhaps a tad too much of the old curmudgeon, or as Robert Heinlein called it in his famous “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction,”

“The man-who-learned-better; just what it sounds like – the story of a man who has one opinion, point of view, or evaluation at the beginning of the story, then acquires a new opinion or evaluation as a result of having his nose rubbed in some harsh facts.”[1]

He then cited Dickens’s A Christmas Carol as a prime example of such a story. Heinlein famously said there were three plots: boy meets girl, the Little Tailor (where the little guy becomes a big shot, or vice versa), and the-man-who-learned-better. Holoship seems to be a combination of boy meets girl and the-man-who-learned better. Regardless, my point is that the foreshadowing of the denouement seems to be unnaturally heavy compared to some other episodes.

The first several minutes of the episode mostly consists of expositional material regarding either the film or the appearance of the holoship. It’s mostly exposition throughout Rimmer’s conversation with Nirvanah Crane:

CRANE: This entire ship, its crew, and everything on it is computer-generated.
RIMMER: You’re all holograms, even the ship?
CRANE: Salut. (They touch glasses.)
RIMMER: Salut.

Even though such a thing is impossible to see in merely stating the dialogue, one can see a visible “melting away” of Rimmer’s confusion as it turns into happiness. Indeed, this episode seems to be Chris Barrie’s opportunity to shine, and he does very well. It is little emotional touches that add to the episode.

The exposition continues in their conversation on the lift. Grant Naylor seems to know how to handle exposition; by breaking it into manageable chunks and keeping it to a minimum, we are able to catch a few subtleties of the invented society. Too much SF, particularly earlier SF, such as the “pulp style” of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, had far too much “As You Know, Bob” dialogue, where two characters (generally scientists) explained to each other what they already knew. The dialogue took on a stilted style. Bruce Sterling, in the ever-useful Turkey City Lexicon, described it as:

“A pernicious form of info-dump through dialogue, in which characters tell each other things they already know, for the sake of getting the reader up-to-speed. This very common technique is also known as “Rod and Don dialogue” (attr. Damon Knight) or “maid and butler dialogue” (attr Algis Budrys).”[2]

So, now that we know what this dialogue scene isn’t, the question remains: what is it? It shows us a glimpse of what the people of this future society are like, and how their society works. And even if this society isn’t as well thought out as some others in SF’s history, it doesn’t really need to be. It does it’s job well, that job being to serve as a background for the story. An extremely detailed society would merely distract from the story.

So, what exactly do we know about this society? Well, for starters, it’s made completely of dead people. We know the size of the crew; how big the ship is (in terms of floors); free sex is advocated strongly; families have been abolished. We are given few details, but it is enough to sketch out the society. A great deal of critical analysis in terms of social creation was not needed for Holoship, but there’s enough here to keep most people satisfied.

The idea of free and rampant sex is not a new one to the science fiction field, although it only really came into prominence with the New Wave movement of the 60s and 70s – but even before that, the covers of pulp SF magazines were using sex as a marketing tool, like this cover. However, this type of SF kept the sexual content down to a bare minimum, and very little was seen until the New Wave, when there were suddenly many books and stories on this very subject. The most notable seem to be Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

Regardless of its past history, it is in the details of the society that draws Rimmer in. The free – and, indeed, enforced – sex on the ship is certainly a plus for a man whose only sexual encounter was with Red Dwarf‘s female boxing champion. It seems as though Rimmer still has his doubts about the society even though the ship is made of holograms and they advocate “constant, guilt-free sex.” However, it seems to be this comment that really drives him to seek a place on board:

CRANE: We discarded the concept of “family” in the 25th century when scientists finally proved that all our hang-ups and neuroses are caused by our parents.
RIMMER: I knew it!

I don’t really want to get too hung up on the psychoanalysis of Rimmer, but this is probably the main catalyst of the story. Rimmer probably would have come aboard even without this comment, but he may not have worked so hard to gain a place on board. If he were not to try as hard as he did, he may not have broached the subject of the mind patch to Kryten, merely dismissing it as another area of life where he’d failed. This brief mention may not seem that important, since it is the relationship with Nirvanah Crane that he is pursuing, but the benefits of relatively small “psychological buffers” can cumulate to something great. Here is a society that understands who he is; and if they don’t understand him, they at least are open to him.

I find it very refreshing that Grant Naylor knows the tropes of SF; a great deal of “sci-fi” shows don’t know the history of it, and so they have nothing new to add. Here, Grant and Naylor are referencing much SF, but perhaps most obviously that of the Star Trek series. Star Trek is renowned for having alien beings as being condescending in their knowledge that they are “higher beings.” This idea seemed to come to logical conclusion in the character Q, in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Binks seems to take on the role of Q here, but he seems to be even more condescending.

Captain Hercule Platini is, perhaps, the silliest pulp name they could have come up with, and it works wonders. The character seems in control and calm, but with a name like “Hercule Platini,” it’s a wonder he made it through grade school without having to be resurrected as a hologram. Oh, and another point, albeit an extremely nitpicky one: even after three million years of existence, holograms cannot come up with a better input device than the standard qwerty keyboard?

It is this unbearable condescension they have for others that makes Rimmer wish to rationalize his desire to be a crew member. Inferiority can be a very powerful motivator, although it took this particular incident for Rimmer to formulate his true goal.

RIMMER: That was just unbelievable!
CRANE: It’s never been like that before.
RIMMER: Was it OK?
CRANE: It was … different.

This episode is filled with so much good stuff. From a character standpoint, this short exchange can tell us so much. Nirvanah’s comment about it being “different” shows that there are seeds of discontent, a fascination with the unknown. It is the beginning stages of her decision to allow herself to be erased. Rimmer’s question, “Was it OK?” is typical Rimmer; brimming over with insecurity.

One thing to notice is what Rimmer says right when the mind patch is occuring:

RIMMER: Glory or insanity awaits.

It is also interesting what he says after the mind patch, when he is about to be transmitted back to the holoship:

RIMMER: Farewell, gentlemen. Glory awaits!

This is a small touch, but the effect it has on the ending is considerable. Notice what Rimmer said at first; it was an either-or situation in his mind. He had not overcome his insecurities enough to be truly confident that this would work. After it happens, of course, Rimmer becomes more aggressive and confident and…well…smarter. He drops out the “or insanity” part of his speech, and merely says, “Glory awaits.” I found this to be most interesting, although that may be just me.

What is also interesting is the exchange when Rimmer leaves for the holoship after he’s won his place aboard:

RIMMER: Look, I’m not much good at big speeches, and I know I haven’t always been an easy guy to get on with. And I know that, given the choice, I probably wouldn’t have chosen you as friends. But, I just want to say…that over the years…I have come to regard you…as…people…I met. I’d just better go, OK?
LISTER: See you, smeghead.
RIMMER: Transfer.

Again, it’s a relatively tiny detail, but notice who says goodbye to Rimmer; it’s Lister. Kryten and the Cat don’t say anything, and this could be because it was Lister who was the only crew member who knew Arnold Rimmer the Human Being, as opposed to Arnold Rimmer the Hologram.

The episode is full of small details about Rimmer and his life and the sort of life that he’d like to lead. It just so happens that Nirvanah Crane seems to be perfect for him; understanding, caring, beautiful. She is interested in him, but it is the possibility of love and monogamy that gets in the way, and she ultimately sacrifices herself for him. In a sense, Holoship is a story about a man who learns a lesson about cause-and-effect. The causality that Kryten occasionally refers to is not a notion that only applies to deep space and the laws of physics; it has much to do with day-to-day human interaction, as well. Holoship is truly a story of the-man-who-learned-better.

Rimmer’s confusion with the concept of consequences as a result of ill thought-out actions is apparent near the end:

PLATINI: Mr. Rimmer, what you are suggesting is that somehow she cared more for your happiness than she did for her own life.
RIMMER: Am I? Yes sir, I suppose I am, sir.

He had to think for a moment of the concept, and though it took him awhile, it seems like a lesson he will not soon forget. This is a Rimmer that has changed deeply from the Rimmer we knew in ages past. And it is a side of him that is refreshing to see, no matter how short or long it may last.

Works Cited

1. Heinlein, Robert A. “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction.” Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. Ed. Gardner Dozois… [et al]. St. Martin’s Press, 1991: 5 – 11.
2. Turkey City Lexicon. Ed. Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner.

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