I originally published this article, or a version of it, on my own weblog, The Holoship Enlightenment, and I was asked to expand on it for publication at the (sodding) esteemed (fucking cunting) website, Ganymede and Titan. And, like any fortunate performer asked to play the Big Time, I said yes, or more accurately “**squeee** omigod yes yes yes!” It is, therefore, my smug and egocentric pleasure to present to you a little piece of speculation that’s been floating and spinning about the bowl of my mind for a while now, in spite of my best attempts to flush it.
This piece, like every other damn thing I’ve written lately, is about Arnold J. Rimmer. (I promise, I’m working on changing that.) Is he, in fact, “the durniest durn who ever dared to durn”? I daresay not.
“Nuh-uh,” I imagine you readers inevitably saying to yourselves. “Rimmer was called ‘Bonehead’ in school. He was nearly kept down a year. He failed his astronavigation exams eleven times. Eleven times! And he can never ever remember his Space Corps Directives either.” But if you’ll just bear with me, I can explain.
For one thing, his command of Space Directives, while perhaps not “uncanny”, is actually quite competent, considering – while he is wrong quite often, he’s seldom far off, as evidenced in Psirens:
RIMMER: …What about Space Corps Directive 1742?
KRYTEN: 1742? “No member of the Corps should report for active duty in a ginger toupee”? Thanks for reminding us of that regulation, sir, but is it really that pertinent in this particular situation?
RIMMER: 1743, then.
KRYTEN: Oh, I see. “No registered vessel should attempt to transverse an asteroid belt without deflectors.”
RIMMER: Yes! God, he’s pedantic.
In brief, Arnold is doing very well, bearing in mind that the Space Corps has some unquestionably strange directives codified, seemingly at random, in its manual. While Kryten might insist that “the Space Corps directives are there to protect us. They are not a set of vindictive pronouncements directed against any one person”, what other organization has ever needed a rule about false teeth and oral sex in zero gravity (#34124, from Legion), sniffing the saddles of exercise bicycles (#196156, from Rimmerworld) and intriguingly unspecified activities involving Jewish clergy and chicken (#68250, from Emohawk – Polymorph II) printed, without any apparent purpose, among its more innocuous and useful statutes (like #595, 597, 312, and 699*, from Quarantine)? It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the Space Corps Directive Manual is designed to cause bewilderment in any mind less perfectly organized and systematic (and yes, perhaps pedantic) than that of a mechanoid. And of course it is designed so, for Red Dwarf is a comedy – but that doesn’t make it any less difficult for Rimmer to keep his directives straight.
And if Arnold Rimmer were truly as dim as the jokes imply, then what of Ace? He’s a Space Corps test pilot who can repair severely damaged spacecraft and perform field microsurgery, and mastering all that takes no mean amount of brainpower and confidence. But it’s almost too easy to forget that they’re the same person, save for one choice – I’ll repeat that for emphasis, the same person, save for one choice – made in their shared past. How can one possibly infer from that fact that Arnold lacks the potential to excel as Ace has excelled, that Arnold the thickie is not, down to the very DNA, made of precisely the same stuff as the multitalented Ace? It’s probably part of why he finds Ace’s presence so unbearable, even if he may not realise it himself; and the only way the resolution of Stoke Me A Clipper could make any sense is if Arnold really had what it takes to become an Ace – if he was, in fact, interchangeable with Ace, albeit with a considerable amount of unrealized potential and a heavier burden of past disappointments on his shoulders (of which more anon). The only thing that distinguishes Ace from Arnold is Arnold’s perception of himself and his talents, a self-image that Ace’s mere existence categorically proves is unrealistic. Everything about Ace Rimmer proves, at least for Arnold, the truth in the lines “Of all sad words of tongue or pen/The saddest are these: ‘It might have been’.”
So: whatever it is that keeps Arnold from success, it certainly isn’t a real want of intellectual facility. However, it may well be an imagined one, which can be just as powerful. Consider the description of Rimmer’s study habits in the novel Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers. He spends three months alternately procrastinating – his detailed study schedules only putting off the terror – and going to pieces.
Some people just test poorly to begin with, particularly in subjects which, for some reason, don’t interest them; but even if Arnold did have a knack for examinations and astronavigation were his passion (which it certainly isn’t, according to IWCD), the pressure of his brothers’ spectacular intellects and his parents’ ridiculously high standards could have crushed the mind of an Einstein into chronically anxious insignificance. (I wonder how his brothers dealt with it? Surely Arnold wasn’t alone among the brothers Rimmer in being pushed up, up, up the ziggurat faster than he could handle.)
The pressure creates panic; the panic, in due course, produces a breakdown, often of astonishing proportions (like the test-taking/cheating scene in The End and IWCD, along with the references to past exam-related failures such as “I am a fish”); the inevitable academic disappointment that follows adds to the pressure placed on him to make next time better than last time, to break the pattern, to finally be judged fit in the eyes of his parents, his siblings, and ultimately himself. It’s quite a vicious cycle, really, and if not too closely examined its cumulative effects can make anyone appear much less talented than they actually are.
Arnold Rimmer is probably smarter than anyone knows – particularly Arnold Rimmer. I’m not sure if I’d go so far as to employ the G-word; “genius” is a word used so often it seems to have lost much of its proper meaning. Even in the particular sense of intellectual gifts, however, it seems a bit imprudent to call Rimmer anything other than “smarter than he knows”. But in view of what we know of his self-esteem, “smarter than he knows” probably still amounts to a lot.