It’s cold outside, there’s no kind of atmosphere,
I’m all alone, more or less.
Let me fly, far away from here,
Fun, fun, fun, In the sun, sun, sun…
Fans of science fiction and British comedy will instantly recognize those lyrics from the TV show Red Dwarf, which first premiered on the BBC in 1988. Red Dwarf is a bit of an odd duck of shows. Much like another classic BBC series, Doctor Who, it has survived cancellation and been revived time and again. Hell, two new seasons were just made! Unlike Doctor Who, it’s always with the same cast—though the nature of the show itself has gone through a number of changes and evolutions.
But just as odd a duck is the novelization of the first few seasons of Red Dwarf, called Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers. The author, Grant Naylor, is actually two people: Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. In this book we follow the misadventures of the world’s most notorious space bum, Dave Lister, as he works his way to the bottom rung of the mining ship Red Dwarf, and finds a way to stay on that bottom rung for the next three million years.
I’ve touched on adaptations a few times in the past, showing those which have strengths and those with weaknesses, but Infinity is certainly a book that benefits from having more room to stretch and explore its own world, and people. All the main characters are there, but we’re able to see their various flaws in a new light, sometimes gaining a surprising understanding for their motivations.
One of the interesting things about Infinity is that Lister is actually smarter than the early seasons depict him. Oh, he’s still a drunk and lazy bum and all around slacker, but he’s not as stupid as he looks. For example, in the show he’s put into suspended animation because he was caught bringing a cat on board the ship against regulations. The reason he gets caught is because he sent pictures of himself and the cat to the photo lab to be processed. Duh.
However, in the book we learn there’s a method behind the stupidity. After having had a relationship with Kristine Kochanski, one she breaks off to go back to her old boyfriend, Lister can’t stand the idea of spending the next eight months working so close to her. He got the cat expecting to get caught, so he could be punished and put into suspended animation until they reached Earth in order to avoid all that awkwardness.
Of course, fans of the show know how that works out…
The other characters are similarly more complex. Arnold Rimmer, while just as arrogant and buffoonish as before, is made more sympathetic. Or perhaps more accurately, we understand him better. It’s one thing to hear about his childhood, but actually getting into his head (a scary place if there ever was one) lets us understand his flaws… his many, many, many flaws.
Even the shipboard computer, Holly, is more developed than on the show. On the show he’s played as suffering from a form of computer senility, but in the book it’s clear he is still quite intelligent and sometimes what seems like senility is actually Holly being clever. His whole reason for choosing Rimmer as Lister’s companion instead of one of his friends is simple—Lister needs someone to hate. He knows that will keep him going more than a buddy who will just help him drink his life away down in the pub.
Looking past the initial book, one thing the novels share with the TV series is their ability to retool and even retcon itself completely. At one point both Grant and Naylor went their separate ways, writing different Red Dwarf books, and on more than one occasion the books end in a way that suggested the series was at an end as well. Honestly, both the TV and book series are pretty difficult to get a straight and coherent timeline for, so don’t even try. Books and TV seasons alike are best taken as standalone items, each running on the same premise, but not necessarily needing to obey a “canon” of history.
Of course, the greatest advantage of a novel is the unlimited casting budget and special effects available to authors. That is to say, while the TV series was highly restricted by its budget, the books can get as crazy as they want, and often do. In Infinity, we get to spend a lot of time in Lister’s present day, see what society in the year 2180 is like and explore the world in a way that the show never really could without looking cheap (well, cheaper… it is an 80s British SF show after all).
The humor is all there, but the books carry with it a bit more depth and heart as well, making these books well worth having in any smeghead’s library.
Nothing about Red Dwarf is complete without… The Rimmer Experience
Originally Published in KODT #240