NOTE: While this review is spoiler free, readers are free to discuss the novel in the comments, which may contain spoilers for future episodes of the radio series.
The first thing that strikes you when you pick up a copy of The Quanderhorn Xperimentations is that it’s BIG. Certainly a heavier tome than any of the Red Dwarf novels, and comfortably the largest installment of Rob Grant’s post-Dwarf literary career so far. He has some help here, of course, from the presence of co-writer Andrew Marshall, as well as the existence of six freshly-written radio scripts to adapt. The press release that first alerted us to its existence promised us the book would be “springing and expanded from” the radio series, bringing to mind the aforementioned Dwarf novels, which still stand as masterpieces of their genre for the way they take the source material and use it to build a much bigger universe. Now that the book has hit the shelves, does the reality meet those, admittedly rather hard-to-match, expectations?
Not quite. While it’s hard at this stage to know the extent to which it’s expanded from a series that’s only a sixth of the way through, the second thing you notice with the book is that, much like the Dwarf novels, it’s split into a handful of parts, which are themselves a collection of twenty-odd smaller chapters. There are seven parts, but the last is more of an epilogue, consisting of just a few pages, which leaves us, tellingly, with six big chunks of story.
So rather than doing the Red Dwarf thing of mixing and matching disparate elements from the series to create new and original storylines, this is the six individual instalments from the radio series bolted together. Throughout the book, the conclusion to each individual plot is carried over to the start of the next part, creating a whole host of cliffhangers; I assumed at first that this was an innovation for the novel, but based on the opening episode, it’s a feature of the series too; Part 1 ends in roughly the same place as Episode 1, but interestingly there is one extra chapter, which teases how they’re going to get out of the sticky situation, but without giving too much away.
(A side note at this point about the timing of this book release. It obviously makes commercial sense to market all the Quanderhorn-related stuff in one big blast; indeed, at the Forbidden Planet book signing last Thursday, radio producer Gordon Kennedy was there handing out flyers for the series. But it leaves us unsure as to how best to consume the story. I’ve obviously gone ahead and read the whole thing, but a fellow fan at the signing said he was going to read each part week-by-week after listening to the corresponding episode.)
But anyway, none of the above is to suggest that a straightforward adaptation is in any way a bad thing, and this book still finds a way to stand out as an individual piece of work thanks to the way it’s formatted. While the story mostly unfolds in a linear fashion, save for the odd deviation for dramatic effect, it’s told via the central conceit that the book has been compiled by the present day authors from various historical sources, pieced together to shed some light on the eponymous Xperimentations. As such, it consists of journal entries from most of the main characters, transcripts of audio recordings, newspaper clippings, extracts from Hansard and suchlike.
This gives us a tale largely told by multiple unreliable narrators, each with the agenda of casting themselves in the best light, leading to all sorts of meta-fictional fun when the accounts contradict each other. It’s a great way of getting to know the characters, and making clear their points of difference. The most commonly used source is the journal of Brian Nylon, an unlikely undercover spy whose espionage mission is slightly hampered by having recently had his memory wiped. This amnesia makes him the everyman character who acts as our guide into the Quanderhorn universe, as he rediscovers its quirks and mysteries alongside the reader.
Then there’s Dr Gemini Janussen, a brilliant scientist with a clockwork brain, which means that most of the time she acts only with rationality and logic, but when she runs out of power her emotional side takes over and wreaks havoc. I’m not sure what it’s trying to say about women given that she is the only female character in the ensemble, but the book does at least take the time to explore both sides of her, and her personal journey is one of coming to terms with who she is, and attempting to reconcile her duality.
Meanwhile, the Professor himself is, as you’d expect, an eccentric and mysterious character. He’s one of the few people whose journals are not featured in the book, and as such we never get into his head like we do with everyone else. He’s there to kickstart the six individual plots, provide comedy with his arrogance and recklessness, and even to act as a villain at times; given that we hear testimony from both his allies and his enemies, we’re never quite sure what his intentions are, which allows for all sorts of plot twists and running mysteries.
Comic relief is provided by resident alien Guuuurk, a Martian prisoner of war with purple skin and six eyes, but who dresses, talks and acts like Terry-Thomas. He’s an inveterate coward, not that you’d know that from his journal, which never fails to play up his part for the benefit of his readers in the Martian high council, giving him a slightly Rimmer-esque streak. Then there’s Troy, the Professor’s super-strong, super-stupid, half-insect son, and Jenkins, his faithful handyman and, it soon transpires, complete spiv. Further comedy comes in the form of occasional footnotes from the authors, explaining esoteric references within journal entries with a style that’s nicely reminiscent of Hitchhikers.
(Another radio related side note here. As I read the book before hearing the first episode, I had a very different voice in my head for some of the characters. I pictured Brian as being a little older than Ryan Sampson, and the Professor much younger than James Fleet. Most notably, Troy comes across as much, much stupider in the book than he does on the radio – there he’s a bit ditzy, but here he’s a complete moron.)
The found footage concept is one that truly enhances the story, with the frequent changes in format and perspective enabling it to zip along at a page-turning pace. It mostly unfolds in real time, with the occasional big leap between the introduction and execution of a new concept, which reminded me a little of Colony, Rob’s first non-Dwarf novel. There are tonnes of weird and wonderful ideas at the heart of the various storylines, which touch upon time travel, cloning, alien invasions and genetic engineering, amongst others. Not all of them are completely groundbreaking or original, but each are mined thoroughly for their comedy potential before being discarded. It doesn’t take its sci-fi as seriously as Dwarf (usually) does, but it’s a fun and well-constructed universe to spend time in.
Despite the constant change of authorial voice, it remains immersive partly because of the expertly-structured plotting, revealing just the right level of information at the right time to keep you constantly wanting to read just one more chapter. It also helps that the majority of the characters write in pretty much the same style of prose, which just happens to be rather similar to that of Rob Grant, and we all already know that this is a huge selling point. His trademark fascination with the macabre is also present, but more restrained than in some of his previous work; I would say that this is perhaps the influence of co-writer Andrew Marshall, but in truth we can only guess as to who was responsible for what, so they both deserve credit for this funny, inventive and truly original piece of work.
For those looking for further tenuous Red Dwarf comparisons, there’s a few things to note, such as a brief moment where a character’s mind is transported into the body of a chicken in the process of laying an egg. Elements at various points in the novel include carnivorous shape-shifters, someone having to distinguish between two duplicates both claiming to be the original, human remains being used as grit and people eating their own feet. One part culminates in the impromptu construction of an improvised Hammond organ. Some things just never change.
(l-r) Rob Grant, Ian Symes, Jo Sharples of TORDFC, Andrew Marshall
Ultimately, this is not quite the self-contained novel that I was first hoping for. There are a few bits of business that seem like they’re going to be important plot points, but which turn out to just be gags from the radio series that have been carried over despite not being pertinent to the overall arc. There are two big mysteries running through the spine of the story – namely the circumstances leading up to Brian’s memory wipe, and why one team member turns into a giant broccoli monster who attempts to destroy Big Ben in the opening chapters – and only one of them is resolved by the end.
But what this is instead is the first instalment of what is potentially a much bigger canon. There is plenty of scope for more Xperimentations in the future – both on radio and in print – and the book ends with the most blatant sequel hook you’ve ever seen. I sincerely hope that if there’s a second radio series, there’s a second book to go along with it. Or if there isn’t a second radio series, we get a second book anyway. This world and this format both clearly have legs. Well done everyone, but mostly Rob and Andrew.