Red Dwarf: Better Than Life by Grant Naylor

Red Dwarf: Better Than Life book cover
Rating 9.5/10
Even smegging brillianter!

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The first thing to say about the second Red Dwarf novel is that although (like it's predecessor) it tells a story completely independent of the cult TV series that spawned it, on no account should anyone consider reading this book without having first read Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers.

Better Than Life begins precisely where the previous book ended, indeed you could probably go from one to the other and not notice any difference at all. Not only is there no introduction, preamble or exposition, the book begins in an extremely strange situation indeed.

At the end of the previous book it was revealed that the four principle crew members of the mining ship Red Dwarf had not made it back to Earth at all, but gotten themselves trapped in the fatally addictive virtual reality computer game of the book's title, a game that makes all their deepest fantasies seem to come true.

Having established well the characters in the previous book, Better Than Life thus begins with an in depth examination of their foibles, which is at the same time fascinating and hilarious.

The slobby David Lister, to even his own surprise, has crafted himself a sickly sweet ideal family life in a reproduction of Bedford Falls, the principle town from the film "It's a Wonderful Life". He is of course married to the love of his life Kristine Kochanski with twin sons who  embody every cute childhood trait on file.

Even though I had not - when I first read the book - watched Frank Capra's film, the prevailing and overdone niceness of this scenario is a theme that likely anyone would recognize, and the fact that Grant and Naylor manage to make it both rather adorable, quite funny and just a little disturbing is a tribute to their skills.

The Cat has ended up as master of a gothic castle with a moat of milk, served by a hoard of scantily clad valkyries, indeed the very implausibility of this scenario just proves how monumentally wrong Cat's ego is. In less skilled hands , it's likely the Cat's fantasy would be a pretty repellent one. The story of a narcissistic chauvinist getting everything he wants should by rights be pretty nasty reading, however again, the moderate touch Grant and Nailer use here is to be applauded, especially with how they manage to make the Cat entertaining, likeable and even (in his own artless, feline way), innocent.

The star however of this half of the book and the one whom we spend most time with is Rimmer, indeed the book begins explosively when Lister's fantasy is shattered by a prostitute driving a juggernaut, who's story explains Rimmer's various misadventures and why he is no longer the world's most popular billionaire.

The principle behind Rimmer's story, (and ultimately what fuels most of the plot of the book's first half), is that Rimmer's own self hatred means that the game fulfils his deepest fantasies by tormenting, rather than pleasing him. Again, this is a plotline which, if handled otherwise would be quite unpleasant to read, or would be overly sad and introspective for such a profoundly whacky setup as Red Dwarf. Seeing the extremely crazy ways in which Rimmer's subconscious decides to punish him, from having his body repossessed to having him participate in a jail break instigated by psychotic hippy gangsters provides a fast paced and extremely funny series of decidedly unfortunate events, though one which is not without both its irony or its thoughtfulness. For example, Rimmer's musings on how his own attitudes towards women have affected his circumstances within Better Than Life and the roles the game has given to various characters from Rimmer's life within his fantasy, (prepare to be disturbed!). I did wonder before rereading if some of both the slapstick (such as a sequence in which Rimmer, attempting to make love in the back of a speeding car receives various nasty injuries), and some of the intensive shallowness on offer like Rimmer's marriage to the world's top model and actress would make things seem a bit too over done , however since this is basically the world according to Rimmer (and a rather worrying world at that, a fact Rimmer notices himself), it's quite possible to simply take things and run with them, though I do wish a little more of the later book had been spent on Rimmer's growth as a character from this experience.

My only major issue with this half of the book is the way that Rimmer's presence instantly and fatally destroys the fantasies of Lister and The Cat, and even Kryten's simple desire to clean. Lister's in particular, seeing the cloyingly sweet Bedford Falls suddenly turn into an industrial wasteland populated by grasping characters (perhaps a reflection of the Pottersville sequence in the Capra film), is surprisingly down beat.

One thing which Better Than Life also succeeds at admirably is adding two more characters to the roster. Holly, the laconic ship's computer had been a constant presence in the previous book, but other than some comical discourses on his navigation of the ship, the odd sarcastic remark and some vague worries that three million years in deep space had sent him somewhat nutty, he didn't seem to get much to do in the plot.

During the beginning of Better Than Life however, while the four crew members are trapped in virtual reality, Holly starts to get his own story. This portion also introduces the last major character, Talky Toaster, an intelligent, toast obsessed futuristic gadget that Lister picked up on a whim and Holly now seeks out as a companion. While the Toaster is a fairly one note character, his acerbic manner and obsession with toast does make sense given that he's a low grade machine intelligence, and the plotline involving Holly sacrificing his electronic life span to boost his IQ is a genuinely fascinating idea.

What I particularly like about this premise, is that it so easily could've turned Holly into quite literally a Deus Ex Machina for the second half of the novel once Rimmer and co get back aboard Red Dwarf. However, once again showing the author's preference for great characterization, even over playing around with sci-fi ideas, Holly's involvement is most sparing.

In one hilarious scene for example, the crew learn that a planet is about to hit the ship, and when Holly understands the situation he prints out a solution involving causing a sun flare to strike the planet and redirect it. Lister however, noticing Holly is playing pool with planets decides that he, a self-professed "Pool God" is far more qualified than a computer with a five figure IQ and so takes the interplanetary shot himself (with double strength lager on tap).

The ideas on display in the book's second – and very typically sci-fi - half are, like some of the latter portions of the first book, both mind-bending and amazingly well described, such as the ships' descent into a black hole, the crew's experience of Spagettification (a term which I thought for a long time was uniquely made up by Grant and Naylor with their expected word manglings), and even some historical asides showing humanity's less than forward progress. Stylistically in fact, the whole book if anything builds on what was used previously. Crazy analogies (I love one description of a security guard as having "the size and disposition of fifth century Mongolian”, quirky sound descriptions, lots of remarkable character moments, and the author's astonishing ability to make slap stick humour funny all return with a vengeance, though unlike the first book there is far less by way of mad hops between scenes or strange changes in pace.

Even after the end of the Better Than Life sequence, the characterization continues as beautifully as ever, in particular Kryten receives rather more time and attention and is shown to be far more than just a modern day butler stereotype obsessed with cleaning, indeed part of the plot involves Kryten, Holly and the Toaster's different attitudes to the electronic afterlife, Silicon Heaven.

This second half of the book is also where another theme is introduced, humanity's general corruption. In historical asides which are both rather cynical and quite humorous, we learn how humanity elects earth as the dumping ground for the whole colonized solar system (with an accompanying Eurovision parody), uses belief in an afterlife to enslave mechanized life, and even develops genetically modified life forms as household appliances. The sardonic explanation that a genetic defect causes each human to believe all other humans are insane, and the only cure for this is when lots of humans agree that other groups of humans are insane, is one that I've quoted myself in my more cynical moments.

This leads to one of the books more poignant final themes, that of Lister, despite being a beer swigging, curry eating lout trying to in some way look for the redemption of his species, and considering that this theme is played out during intensive action sequences such as acid rainstorms and looping the singularity of black holes it says something for how much impression it makes, indeed I can only think of one other author who can mix this sort of ethical introspection with intensive space action and that is Douglas Adams.

Towards the end, we return to both horror and character as the crew battle a genetic mutant that consumes emotions, and while the book's climax seems to be a cop-out in some ways (partly thanks to Holly) at the same time it's one of the more beautiful sequences and definitely leaves you with a warm, satisfied feeling, for all I do rather wish that though the ending concentrates very much on Lister, Rimmer and Kryten had seen the expansion of their character's that began in Better Than Life achieve some sort of closure as well.

My only major issue with the second half of the book and the book's ending is that it does not quite marry up with some of the plot elements introduced in Infinity. For example, even though Kryten's ship, the Nova 5 had supposedly been repaired and re-fuelled the evening before the crew got trapped in Better Than Life, nobody mentions using the Nova 5 to avoid a collision with the oncoming planet or Red Dwarf's trip into the black hole. Also, part of the ending seems a trifle incomprehensible given that it relies upon a detail which wasn't explained in the first book, (especially since its significance is not revealed until literally the final sentence), and indeed I confess I only now realize what happened thanks to the retrospective explanation in one of the book's sequels.

That being said, these are only minor points in the extreme, and it's quite astounding just how consistently well-crafted and expertly paced such a sprawling, random plot is.

Better Than Life builds on absolutely everything that was begun in the previous book. The wordsmithing and various sorts of humour are back in full force (still more in the audio recording with the awesome Chris Barry at the helm) and the plot handles character examination, intensive adventures in space, a rather cynical exploration of humanity and a poignant thread of human redemption with consummate ease. I am only sorry that this remained Grant and Naylor’s final collaborative effort on a Red Dwarf novel, since it really is smegging awesome!

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