Infinity Welcomes Better Than Backwards Last Humans

I might as well get the bold statement out of the way, for the sake of argument, as it’s just going to clog up the article if I don’t get on and say it :

The Red Dwarf novels, in my opinion, are better than the TV series upon which they are based.

There. I’ve said it. Now I’ve left myself with the unenviable task of justifying it.

Perhaps I should qualify this a bit. I’ve never been a huge fan of Last Human, while Backwards is the book that probably comes across the most like a fleshed-out novelisation of the TV series. However, the four books taken as a whole entity, and in particular the first book (which for the sake of clarity I’ll refer to by its unofficial title Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers throughout this article) and Better Than Life, do so much to expand upon the concepts of the television series, presenting much more epic plots and settings than could be achieved on a BBC budget, and building up the levels of characterisation, that I really do think they are far more than simply companions to the TV series. If anything, I consider the events of the books to be more canonical than the TV series, particularly once they started buggering things up in VII and VIII.

Now that you’ve waded through my muggy and sentences and parentheses a bit, I’ll get on with explaining just why the books are so good.

“DESCRIBE, USING DIAGRAMS WHERE APPROPRIATE, THE EXACT CIRCUMSTANCES LEADING TO YOUR DEATH.”

Saunders had been dead for almost two weeks now and, so far, he hadn’t enjoyed a minute of it. What he wasn’t enjoying at this particular moment was having to wade through the morass of forms and legal papers he’d been sent to complete by the Department of Death and Deceased’s Rights.

“Huh? What? Huh? Have I bought the right book?” That’s you, that is. Well, that’s you if you’re a poor unsuspecting watcher of the Dwarf TV series who’s just picked up Infinity for the first time. It’s not exactly what you might expect from what is apparently a novelisation of a TV series whose first episode introduced us to its lead characters in its opening scene. “Who’s Saunders? Where are Rimmer and Lister?” you might be thinking. Of course, as you read on, it becomes apparent that this is just a nice little bit of setup to introduce us to the idea of holograms. “Of course,” you’re thinking, “get that little bit of exposition out of the way as soon as possible. Ooh, look, chapter two, and here’s McIntyre, that’s more like it, now we’re on familiar ground. Before we know it, we’ll be on the ship, Lister will be singing “Ganymede and Titan”, and all will be right with the world.”

Lister flicked on the “For Hire” sign, and decided to take the hopper down Central and back towards Mimas docks.

“Mimas? What’s Lister doing on Mimas? Where’s Rimmer? Where’s Red Dwarf?” And still the bafflement continues (if you’re the sort of person to get baffled by this). Nevertheless, these opening chapters are intriguing. I could go on quoting, but you get the idea. It’s eight chapters and over 40 pages before Lister even sets foot on Red Dwarf. It’s five before we find out that the poorly disguised “officer” is good old Arnold Judas. The point is, by the time the accident has happened, we’ve had around a third of the book devoted to setting up the ship, the central characters and quite a lot of their background. Already we know that Lister is far more than just a “scuzzy space bum who’s powered by beer and curry” (thanks, Bushell), that he’s just a regular guy who keeps getting unlucky; and we’ve enough of a sense of Rimmer’s problems and neuroses to begin to feel sympathetic rather than condemnatory towards him. The End, meanwhile, gave us, ooh, about ten minutes or so before the accident?

That said, of course, the early series, contrary to what you might think, do actually give us a chance to feel sympathy towards him. Despite the fact that we are taken through the early episodes from Lister’s perspective – and that Lister’s perspective on Rimmer is that he hates him – there’s room for Rimmer’s background to come out. Naturally, much of this is to do with Chris Barrie’s stellar performances, and nowhere is this more evident in the heartbreaking scenes in Thanks For the Memory :

RIMMER : That was going to be our song. But I never found anyone to share it with. So now it’s just my song.

The books, of course, lack the performances of the cast, but by comparison, they take those small shards of humanity and sympathy and expand upon them greatly, allowing the characters to grow far more than the television series does.

However, the fact that the books “flesh out the characters” is probably the most overused reason when describing why they’re actually any good. It’s a catch-all phrase, that implies that you know what you’re talking about when really you just want to sound smart. It’s certainly a strength of the books, but it’s by no means the only one. And for all that Infinity… does well in expanding the conceits of the programme, on improving scenes from Kryten, Me2 and Future Echoes (to name just a few), and on vastly improving the idea of the Better Than Life game (especially the notion that it’s powered by the subconscious, directly contradicting at one point the episode’s moment where Lister imagines the bike), it’s Better Than Life that really ramps things up a notch. Why? Two words : Garbage World.

Let’s back up a bit first. It’s in the plotting, for me, that the books really come into their own. As writers of a low-budget science-fiction comedy series for the BBC, Rob and Doug were placed under various restraints. Writing novels, the only restraints exist in the imagination of the reader. Consequently, the books can present scenarios that simply couldn’t exist in the series. So we get the attempted rebuilding of the Nova 5 in Red Dwarf’s immense cargo hold (and, indeed, the overall expansion of the ship to unimaginable sizes). The argenoids can turn the whole of the ship into a terrifying torture chamber. Things in the backwards-universe can run far more convincingly. Lister can be imprisoned in a giant dome with a pink lake at the bottom. The events of High Midnight/Gunmen of the Apocalypse can become horrifically graphic and violent. And so on.

Arguably the greatest of these more epic notions, however, is the Garbage World section of Better Than Life. Now, I’ve personally had a long-standing view that Red Dwarf can only truly be considered to have ended when the crew have finally reached Earth once more. Despite Doug Naylor’s original intention to end Series VIII with that very occurence, however, the books suggest that the writers disagree with me on this one. Last Human ends with Lister and Kochanski rebuilding the human race on a random planet (which is essentially a new “Earth”, but certainly isn’t the little blue planet Lister’s spent three books trying to get home to). Backwards, meanwhile, deals with the conceit a lot better, closing with the following rather profound words :

For as long as [Lister] could remember, all he’d wanted was to get back home.

He’d always considered that Earth was his home, but as the ugly red brute of a ship loomed into view, he felt a tingling in his stomach, and thought maybe he’d been wrong.

Maybe this was home.

And my theory is further turned on its head by the fact that, halfway through Better Than Life, Lister actually does make it back to Earth, and while he’s at it he goes through possibly the finest section of any of the Dwarf novels. Notwithstanding the fact that the entire notion of Earth being designated a garbage dump for the rest of the solar system, and then basically farting its way out of it (“Ewe woz ‘ere”, indeed), is superb and original, the way in which Lister’s redemption and reconciliation with his home planet is handled is superb. Indeed, Better than Life explores better than any of the other books the true meaning behind being the Last Human in the universe; and would have been far more deserving of that title than Doug’s book (which actually, of course, features quite a number of humans in it, bizzarely). The quality of this section, therefore, allows me to overlook the rubbishing of my notions of what the ultimate “goal” of Red Dwarf is. And I’m a stubborn bastard, so you know that means it’s something special.

When it comes to gags, meanwhile, the Dwarf novels of course borrow heavily from the television series. It’d be silly not to. Last Human in particular is rescued, comedically, by inserting such classic exchanges as the opening scene of Legion (lucky, really, as that book generally demonstrates Doug’s then-worrying prediliction towards sci-fi over comedy). While there are occasions where the gags are expanded, though, it’s hard to give preference to the novels over the show. As we all know, delivery is often just as key as scripting in Red Dwarf – and, as I mentioned above, the cast’s delivery is the major thing the books lack. Nevertheless, the books do contain some original, comedically genius moments of their own. One that springs to mine is the lengthy description in IWCD of Rimmer’s exam revision technique. Maybe it’s because I was revising (or, rather, attempting to revise) for exams myself around the time I was re-reading the book, but that segment stands out as probably my favourite comedy moment from any of the four books – and is up there with the very greatest moments of the TV series.

Perhaps the most obvious praise for the Red Dwarf novels, however, is the fact that on their own merits, irrespective of the fact that they are based on a television series, they are excellent sci-fi and comedy books in their own right. It’s possible to read and love them even if you’ve never seen the TV series (I’ve yet to meet someone for whom this is true, but I’m sure they’re out there). It was reading the novels that actually rekindled my interest in the television series, and for that alone I will always hold them in high regard. Aside from that, however, the simple fact remains that Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers is one of the most thumbed-through books I own, and no matter how many times I read it I can always relish picking it up again. Interestingly, the same can’t be said of the DVDs; I’ve now watched series I-IV so often that re-watching in too short a space of time can become tiresome. My own personal opinions aside, however, it can’t be denied that the books succeed not just as an extension or adaptation of a TV series, but as some of the best books of their kind ever written.

And I doubt there are many TV tie-ins that could say that.

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28 Responses to Infinity Welcomes Better Than Backwards Last Humans

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  1. Bumping this article because it deserves to be read by those who haven’t read it yet. Just like the novels, really.

  2. Whether Seb still thinks this 15 years later or not, I think he’s right. The first novel is the greatest individual thing in Red Dwarf, even if it has to count as a ‘series’ for fairness I’d still put it above nearly all of them.

    Even as a bit of a literary snob, I was hugely impressed by it when re-reading. The amount of stuff it sets up and pays off later (Red Dwarf actually does some mining!) and the intense character focus. BTL has amazing set pieces like Garbage World, the black hole and the glimpse of backwards Earth, but the parts are maybe greater than the whole with that one, it’s a bit random.

  3. The Nova 5 in novel form is great I seem to remember. Been a couple of years since I read the books last but I’d agree that there’s a lot more to enjoy, but it could be that I’ve seen the TV show so much the impact has lessened.

  4. I’d agree that the first two novels are the best Red Dwarf media out there, and that they far surpass the TV series. I come back to them occasionally and I’m consistently impressed at how subtle they are sometimes- I was re-reading them a while ago and it only just occurred to me then that throughout the two novels, Kochanski never actually has any spoken lines of dialogue. It’s something that you simply couldn’t do in the TV series, but works incredibly well at portraying her as the woman of Lister’s dreams, more like an icon, rather than an actual character that’s relevant to the story. It also serves well as a way of showing how despite pining over her so much, Lister basically knows nothing about her, I think.

    The set-up and payoff of certain plot points is nothing short of genius as well. I remember the first time I read Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers, and they get back to “Earth” I genuinely didn’t realize they were in Better Than Life until the message on Lister’s arms gets through to him. When you realize it, it really hits you- it suddenly ties together a seemingly unrelated set of events that you just sort of assume won’t come up again or be relevant in any way- the BtL game, Petrovitch’s drug dealing and the tattoo on Old Lister’s arms, and it’s just like “wow.” Also, the ending of Better Than Life always makes me tear up a little. Lister as an old man, still insistent that he’ll get Kochanski back one day, dedicating the huge picture frame in his house to the one tiny memento of her he has left, Rimmer laughing in joy for the first time ever when Holly figures out how to bring Lister back, and then Lister finally being reunited with Kochanski at the end, just like he said he would, it’s really something beautiful

    I don’t really know where I was going with that, it was a more or less a random stream of my thoughts about the books. But basically, they’re really good, and I like them

  5. The first two books are absolutely wonderful. Although the original series will always be my favourite – the performances and atmosphere are such a big part of it – I can’t deny that objectively the books are probably higher quality works overall.

    Backwards and Last Human are difficult. Avoiding the fact that they contradict each other, which always bothered me a touch, there’s the fact that both lean too heavily on one aspect of the show or another: Backwards being almost entirely recycled (albeit expanded) plots, and Last Human essentially being a sci-fi novel in a very populated universe with some Red Dwarf jokes thrown in every now and then. I’m also not fond of the recurring Rimmer interludes in Backwards, which feel like they’re trying to be more clever than they are. They’re still both very enjoyable, but definitely a step down in contrast to the first two. The opening third of IWCD made me realise I could quite happily watch a whole series of Red Dwarf set pre-accident.

  6. Last Human and Backwards both have good and bad points, but the annoying thing about Last Human is that it can’t seem to decide whether it’s Red Dwarf or Star Trek.

  7. Backwards was very gritty and Rob was really pushing the Sci-Fi elements to the point where some of the comedy got left behind.

    Last Human was basically a star trek/star wars adventure where Doug made Droids, Simulants, gelfs and holograms a substitute for aliens and created a story out of it.

    Backwards probably works as a better sequel to BTL because it concludes certain elements like what happened to red dwarf, while Last Human just kinda forgets them.

    Infinity welcomes careful Drivers and BTL are great books though.

  8. I honestly don’t get what problem people have with Last Human. It’s certainly the only one of the two BTL sequels that actually attempts to pick up and conclude all the through-stories. Maybe it’s because all the Cyberia stuff at the start throws people off the scent because it’s tonally so strange, but the first 2 books are also full of deliberately jolting weird stuff as well.

    Last Human is also the closest we’ll ever get to a proper ending for Red Dwarf. In the multimedia, choose-your-own-adventure melange of trying to consume ‘Red Dwarf’ as a thing and as a story, the last pages of Last Human definitely feel like you’ve succeeded in locating the True Ending. Hiding perfectly formed at the back of the book everyone’s sniffy about.

  9. Am I the only one who finds Better Than Life too depressing?

    IWCD is undisputed gold though.

  10. I honestly don’t get what problem people have with Last Human.

    Probably the comparative lack of jokes and the heavily populated universe aspect. There are tonal similarities with VII (‘Identity Within’ feels like it came from the same fictional universe), but otherwise it just feels very un-Dwarfish for the most part.

  11. >I honestly don’t get what problem people have with Last Human

    It reads like incredibly crap fan-fiction, and large portions of the book are just dialogue sequences verbatim from the TV series only with “said Rimmer” or “said Cat” lazily slapped on the end (so lazily, at one point Rimmer says one of Cat’s lines about suits). The prose is completely different from the first two books, so it doesn’t even feel like it takes place in the same universe, Star Fleet is suddenly a thing rather than Space Corps amongst a myriad other continuity errors (Rimmer is referred to as a Third Technician for example) Kochanski’s character is just awful, Rimmer’s backstory being completely altered for the sake of that one line about the “encyclo implant chip’, Starbug having a fucking Hubble Telescope all of a sudden etc.

    As unpleasant as Backwards is in tone, it does at least fit into the continuity of the first two books. Last Human feels like something else that’s almost, but not entirely unlike Red Dwarf

  12. Yeah, I agree with the general consensus – Backwards at least feels like it shares a tone with the previous books, whereas Last Human feels like something else entirely.

  13. Star Fleet is suddenly a thing rather than Space Corps

    I think I have more of a problem with that than any of the other points people have made. *So* annoying.

  14. >large portions of the book are just dialogue sequences verbatim from the TV series only with “said Rimmer” or “said Cat” lazily slapped on the end (so lazily, at one point Rimmer says one of Cat’s lines about suits).

    That’s a really weird thing to say considering it does that much less than any of the other three! There are a few slivers of VI scattered around, just scenes and odd lines, but it’s not nearly as reliant on novelisation as the others. Backwards is in full Terrance Dicks mode for the majority.

    It’s important not to be swept up in the cover credits and remember that Rob Grant had a lot of input into Last Human, co-outlining it etc. He just let Doug take it in the ‘divorce’ in exchange for him getting the supernatural anthology series format that they’d been developing. And likewise, there’s tonnes of Doug stuff novelised in Backwards. They’re all Grant Naylor books really.

  15. >It’s important not to be swept up in the cover credits and remember that Rob Grant had a lot of input into Last Human,

    Can we be sure of that though? after all Dougs totally skips the backwards stuff, while Rob focused on it quite abit… unless they split the ideas in the divorce too. and Doug used Rimmers son as a kinda substitute for ace Rimmer, and Rob actually used Ace Rimmer.

    In one of the smegazines i believe Rob and Doug said the 3rd book was gonna pick up the very next day after BTL ended. but that changed i guess.

  16. I think one of them is on record about how a lawyer divvied everything up between them, and you might be right about the novel version of Backwards being ripped out of one and put in the other, but the way the central character stuff in Last Human plays out is very obviously Grant Naylor’s Plan A.

    Michael McGruder and Lister’s ‘plan’ are seeded throughout the earlier books – the whole trilogy is about what the characters want, what they think they want vs what they actually want, and what they are prepared to go through to get it. And they get it, very neatly. Whereas Backwards is circular, nihilistic and contradicts thematically where the two GN books are going.

  17. “The opening third of IWCD made me realise I could quite happily watch a whole series of Red Dwarf set pre-accident.”

    Likewise. I read IWCD on holiday when I was 10. Then series VIII came along a few years later and totally fucked up what could have been a terrific premise.

  18. I really need to go back and read Last Human and Backwards again.

    My memory of Backwards though is that it was rather a tired book as if Rob was really sick of Dwarf at that point. Very few new ideas and lots of rehashing from years previously.

    Last Human seemed fresher at the time, but it has been many years since I read them.

  19. LH obviously concludes the story more satisfyingly than Backwards but I find it jarryingly different in tone than the first two books. Backwards is scrappy and of course Rob’s penchant for gruesomeness is all over it, but it feels like he was trying more for consistency with the first two books, whereas Doug really wanted to ring the changes and do his own version of Red Dwarf with LH. Shit, it’s a real shame we didn’t get a third Grant Naylor novel. There’s strong material in both solo novels.

    One neat little thing about Backwards: the Gunmen section is called High Midnight, which was the episode’s original title until scheduling issues meant the showdown with the Apocalypse Boys couldn’t be filmed at nighttime.

  20. >LH obviously concludes the story more satisfyingly than Backwards

    People always say this, but honestly I found Backwards’ ending much more satisfying. Lister’s come to the realization that maybe, just maybe, Red Dwarf was his home, that he didn’t need to get back to Earth to find a place where he belonged. Onboard the ship, he’s got a group of friends who he genuinely cares about, to the point where they’re almost like his family. Of all the dimensions the Wildfire could have taken him, it happens to be one in which he can be reunited with them- maybe they’re meant to be together? Either way he doesn’t need to look for home anymore, it’s been right in front of him the whole time.

  21. I agree. The ending of Backwards feels ‘right’ to me in a way that Last Human doesn’t.

  22. Do we think Doug would ever novelise the movie, once Red Dwarf in the televisual medium has ended?

  23. I get the feeling there are various very different versions of the movie. A book with a couple of scripts – an early one and a late one, to show how much it changed – would be ideal. But a novelisation would be great, too, and possibly more realistic.

  24. I do like Lister thinking of Red Dwarf as home at the end of Backwards. In fact I’ve said before that I think something like that would make a nice ending for the show. LH works better as the denouement of the trilogy of novels though. As Darrell says, stuff pays off in LH.
    Plus, Backwards ends on that cliffhanger.

  25. Do we think Doug would ever novelise the movie, once Red Dwarf in the televisual medium has ended?

    I wonder whether Doug has entirely given up on the idea of a movie or if he will ever entirely give up on it…

    It would be great to have the script issued though (with annotations and an account of why it never happened).

  26. A movie novelisation in the same vein as James Goss’ recent Who adaptations (City of Death, the original version of The Pirate Planet, Krikkitmen and Baker’s Scratchman) would be nice.

  27. I get the feeling Doug is still sitting on the movie script thinking it’s possible it could still be Made.

  28. Give it forty years.

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