The Red Dwarf novels are some of the finest TV to book adaptations in existence. In fact, no, I’ll go as far to say they are the best TV to book adaptations *ever*. Some people even hold the opinion that they’re superior to their TV based cousin… Me? Well, I think it’s impossible to compare, as both versions succeed in ways the other have no chance of succeeding in – they compliment each other beautifully despite the fact they share totally separate continuities. Still, that’s beside the point. The point is that after the second novel, Better Than Life, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor ceased writing under the Grant Naylor entity and went their separate ways, taking two different strands of the Red Dwarf novel universe with them to create their own original continuation.
The creative split of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor has a whole raft of downsides. Rob has gone on and done his own thing quite admirably, but unfortunately no one’s really been paying much attention. As a fan of Grant I’ve been quite well catered for, but a few TV shows of varying poorness and three post-Dwarf books haven’t really set the world alight, which is a massive shame as they *are* all decent. Doug went on to make two new series of Dwarf which just did not sit right with a number of fans. Even people fond of VII and VIII can’t deny that life would’ve been much sweeter had the Comedy Police stayed side-by-side, instead of this painful division of efforts which ended up producing so much mediocrity.
As it happens, though, the split had one good side effect. We got two new Dwarf books in the space of a year and the first proper opportunity to see the writers’ individual interpretations of the characters they created together. This was the first time in eight years of Dwarf in which the writers were effectively pitted against each other, and the result would go on to form the basis of many’s opinions of the writers as individuals for a long time to come.
The idea of taking off from the same starting point and branching out to two different ‘realities’ is a very interesting one, and more than a little comic book like in nature, taking as it does a quite lax view on a single line of continuity. It’s an utterly fantastic idea, as we know the books are part of a separate continuity from the TV series so this narrative forking seems very natural. This choice is helped along even more by the introduction of parallel universes in both books, filling the reader with understanding of the concept and allowing them to explain the narrative implications of the split for themselves.
As with most things surrounding the Grant and Naylor, there are various stories and rumours surrounding the writing of the two books. Here’s a brief history, taken from TOS:
Doug Naylor’s Last Human was the first of the two sequels. In 1993 Rob and Doug had begun nibbling around the edges of a novel that went under the title of The Last Human. At that time, they gave an interview to the Red Dwarf Smegazine giving away no details, but explaining that the new book would pick up from Better Than Life literally ‘the next day’. A cover design – featuring a distant Starbug beetling across a starscape with the book’s title written in bones – was developed, and even previewed. But the book itself was never written.
When the writers parted – with Rob expressing a desire to produce his own solo novel – the Last Human title (losing the ‘The’) went to Doug. However it was Backwards that actually picked up the Dwarfers on backwards world…
It’s unclear quite what the intention was when The Last Human was first conceived, but the fact that the story would continue directly from BTL suggests that it was close in concept to what Rob eventually put out in Backwards. Obviously, the is all one big guess, but the fact that Doug’s novel, the re-titled Last Human, distances itself from Backwards‘s chronology does suggest that Doug was in a position where his book was the one that had to deviate the most from the early plans for The Last Human.
The upshot of this distancing is that the two books are almost guaranteed to be two very different creations, and they are indeed that. Where-as Backwards feels like a much more traditional Dwarf novel, with the direct continuation, the heavy use of previous episode ideas and very consistent characterisation, Last Human‘s distance from the previous storyline allows it to get that baggage offloaded within a few pages and get on with making a strikingly different book than those that came before it. Sure, it still used left over strands from BTL, most notably as a way to contrive Kochanski into the crew (still a much more acceptable contrivance that what he later did in Ouroboros, though…) and also the black hole they previously navigated to visit the backwards world in the first place. Other than that, though, this is a very self contained story, which owes almost nothing to what came before it. It’s without doubt the bolder of the two books, and it’s something that brings about its best and worst attributes.
I’ll get it out of the way now, and say that Backwards is my favourite of two books by not an inconsiderable margin. While I really respect the creative decisions made with Last Human, and I thought the ending was about as perfect an end to Dwarf as you could possibly get, the experience of the whole story just didn’t click with me fully. It’s a deeply unpleasant book to read at times, and I find myself really unhappy with the idea of an evil Lister, even though the concept is a good one. I can’t help but feel the whole thing could’ve been pulled off with more skill and subtly. Also, as much as I love the extension to the Rimmer/McGruder storyline and the heartbreaking conclusion, the circumstances which bring Rimmer’s son, Michael McGruder, to him all seem FAR too convenient and contrived. I know what you’re thinking, and I know Red Dwarf is not a stranger to taking such narrative liberties, but it seems at odds with the tone of the book. Still, these are quite insignificant when you view the book as a whole, and I especially love the way it skilfully deals with the integration of Kochanski with the crew, with Rimmer facing a hilarious conflict of interests of both respecting his superior officer and hating her guts. It’s brilliantly played and entertaining. It does make me wonder just how series VII would’ve differed if Chris Barrie stayed on board. Would we have seen a similar tension in the place of the *really* uncomfortable Kryten jealousy we eventually got? I think so.
Where Last Human takes our characters and stuff them in this very different scenario, Backwards very much takes the route of the first two books by taking a group of scenarios from the TV series and expanding them and modifying them into a whole new beast. In this respect, Backwards could be seen as a very unoriginal book and not really a good representation of Grant’s individual vision of Dwarf, but he handles the ideas in such a way that he very much makes them his own. The ‘Backwards’ third of the book is completely changed from the TV series, and is developed in many interesting ways. For a start, the book version makes a million times more sense than the TV, and some very interesting concepts are skillfully explored, not least that of the de-aging of the Cat and Lister. Where as the idea is good, it probably becomes the books biggest flaw, as the 15 year old versions of the characters aren’t explored that much, and when they are it can be distracting frm the main plot. Following that, the expansion of Dimension Jump and the character of Ace Rimmer easily provides the strongest section of the book as both the concept of alternate dimensions and the characters in Ace’s universe are very well realised. In fact throughout the whole book it becomes obvious (and later, reading the character of Grenville in Grant’s 2006 book Fat) that Rimmer is very much Grant’s character. The escalating tempers, the long, ranting inner monologues, the superiority complexes and the crippling and impotent rage is written with such perfection… it’s so Rimmer like that it’s impossible not to see that Grant is the very beating heart of this character. And it’s an absolute joy to read… a joy that I just never found to the same extent in Last Human.
In the end, I’m eternally glad that these books exist on their own and that we had a chance to witness this splitting of minds. It’s fascinating to read both books, with all their flaws and plus points ecoing that of the individual writer’s, and the two books certainly have more worth from an analysis point of view than a single Grant Naylor book would. Having said that, I don’t think there are many fans in this big old wide cosmos that wouldn’t swap Last Human and Backwards for The Last Human, but that’s because, without a shadow of a doubt, the Grant Naylor whole is immeasurably greater than the sum of its parts.