Book review: Red Dwarf — Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers, by Grant Naylor
The origin of Red Dwarf is the 1944 play “No Exit” (“Huis Clos” in French), by Jean-Paul Sartre. This remains little known amongst its sci-fi comedy devotees, even though they do occasionally recognise it as existentialist thought.
The influence of this school of philosophy on British and Irish writers has snuck through on rare occasions, e.g. the television series “The Prisoner” and from, less surprisingly, Samuel Beckett, who was living in Paris and surrounded there by bubbling existential ideas. Red Dwarf isn’t just existential in the form of asking “what are the components of an individual?” or addressing questions of free will, decisions are not free choices etc., but it also takes its core theme from No Exit, Sartre’s play: Hell is being locked forever in a room with your friends. “L’enfer, c’est les autres” is the more quoted and detached angle, i.e. how your persona appears externally to other minds. Who goes mad first? As reflected in “The Prisoner”, individuality depends on challenge, defence, questioning and refusal to conform.
Although Dark Star also gave the writers a nudge, the prototype of Red Dwarf was the sketch “Dave Hollins: Space Cadet” in the Radio 4 show “Son of Cliche”, by the same authors. Alone, the crew all dead, lost in space, only the computer to talk to and going crazy.
Just as in Sartre’s play, Red Dwarf begins with three characters who can’t escape each other’s company. There’s been a radioactive accident on a deep-space mining vessel, a several million year pause to let the half-life of that quarter, eighth and sixteenth-out to safe background levels, then three characters emerge as the last representatives of life from our planet (which is now a huge bundle of consumer garbage).
Character 1 is Dave Lister, a Liverpudlian slob who had no idea what to do with his life and spends most of it eating super-hot curry and drinking lager. He has depth of romantic soul, sarcastic wit and a few other attractive qualities like a warm smile and dreadlocks but his main attribute is a complete lack of respect for authority. Character 2 is Arnold Rimmer, who died and returned as a hologram. Psychiatrists and psychologists could unite their disciplines with this missing link of a mind. Aside from the projection aspect, he’s hardly corporeal at all because he’s built out of pre-silicon chips on his shoulders, prejudices, petty squabbles, false ego, an insane devotion to the chain of command (they’re all dead), obsessive compulsive disorder, need for control and some very immature hang-ups. Character 3 is Holly, the ship’s computer, who has brought Rimmer back as Dave’s companion (many other hologramatic crewmates were available) for a reason that makes perfect sense in existential logic: They are complete opposites, have nothing in common, will detest each other, focus each other’s attention as a rival or opponent and, therefore, this is a strategy to keep Dave Lister sane. Rimmer is already quite mad but Dave can be saved. Holly also pretends to be senile, so Dave has something else to adapt to and deal with. Grow up Dave, we’re all rooting for you.
After some time, Character 4 shows up — an irritatingly subservient mechanoid called Kryten, soon followed by a humanoid descended from the ship’s cat. Dave tries to teach Kryten to challenge authority (Rimmer) and refuse to conform, using existentialism to turn a paper or plastic man into a genuine individual, making him more human. The cat is a superficial being, preening, a contrast to any deep trends in these characters’ thinking. It plays out the characteristics of being a cat (disloyal, selfish, vain). It’s as if the writers wrote thirty character flaws and two assets on playing cards and divided them up amongst the characters. Rimmer got the epic tragic complexity, Lister is despondent that he won’t get any hearts and Holly pretends to forget the rules but is actually a secret Svengali who sees all, sits tight and knows everyone’s game.
T.S. Elliott, a fan of cats and hopelessness (Old Possum/Thomas Becket), produced the famous quote: “This is how the world ends; not with a bang, but with a whimper.” Other visions of the final scenes exist. In “Beyond the Thunderdome”, the world ended with no consumer products at all except, strangely, an awful lot of hair mousse. Red Dwarf (infinity welcomes careful drivers) is deliberately, shocklingly, devoid of all hope in this matter. Not only are the crew without a chance because they’re on a space ship approaching light-speed so far from Earth that they can’t even turn around but they are also all exclusively men, so that’s loneliness… to be followed unavoidably by the end of the species. I wonder, would they trade what’s left of our planet and species for a sympathetic hand job? Some questions should be left unanswered. In a black hole, even physics breaks down.
Sexual tension appears a lot in Red Dwarf, sometimes as the butt of the humour but usually it manifests as Dave’s yearning for the sassy girl he cannot be with, Christine Kochanski (Claire Grogan in the TV series, who is responsible for a version of “Happy Birthday” which will also outlive us). Dave would much prefer to talk to her than he would to Rimmer, but Holly, mortality, different ranks and about seven million years have intervened to keep them apart. This is a very unlikely love story across time and space, like falling in love with a dead person’s image. However, the inviable need for Kochanski is forged into how Dave defines himself as an individual and sum of his experiences (vindaloo, lager, making a rude crevice in a golf bunker, cartoons and the London Jets zero-g sports team). As Claire is kind of my doppelganger, it’s probably a good thing this is no longer on television.
Red Dwarf is designed to be a boys only club, which is necessary to twist the tension to have them bouncing off the walls with no way to release their pent up frustration, although when Norman Lovett (Holly) quit the TV series to go and live in Scotland he was replaced by an actress who tilted the gender balance whilst still being unavailable to Dave because, you’ve guessed it, Holly is short for hologram.
This book is really an amalgam of the first two television series. The first was the best of all, philosophically, then the second had a bigger budget, some outside locations and occasional pretty CGI. When converting it into a book though, the story was laid out in series one and the mind games come from there. There were also only two writers behind this. “Only two” seems odd for a book but ten TV series and one radio series came from just two minds, whereas Star Trek and The Simpsons are both written from a pool of up to three hundred contributors. That’s a feat of imaginative endurance, right there.
This is supposed to be fun but, structurally, the setting is a depressing image, so how does that work? It’s what the British call “black humour”, the wit and absurdity that exists on the brink of oblivion, skating around the plug hole of death. It brings out the best in us — not a clue why. Death concentrates existential ideas beautifully because there’s no more personal or individual thing than death, especially dying alone when the struggle is useless. Making jokes on the steps of the guillotine (the service around here is terrible) is not a very French thing to do, it’s a British thing, so that is the north’s contribution to this cross-channel spectacle.
The TV series might be sweet and sour, the book sad, entropy inevitable and the crew we’ve got to know fated to die but the fun they’ve made to keep them going in this vision of hell is the stuff eternal. That’s it, I’ve sussed it, this book is a failed vision of hell. It would work every time on left-bank intellectuals (now a reflection of their thoughtful forebears and sadly more often concerned with self-aggrandisement). The design flaw in this infernal design was incarcerating comedians because that’s the one unique sub-set of our species who would thrive and make the most of it. Red Dwarf is unmissable stuff. I would give it five stars if the mood at the end hadn’t been dragged down quite to my ankles.