Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers by Grant Naylor

Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers book cover
Rating 8.7/10
Smegging brilliant!

When a film or TV series is based on a novel, I am always very eager to read that novel. When however the reverse is true, and something which started on screen is then novelized I tend to be less enthusiastic.

This is because I've often found that where film directors are always ready to make changes to an author's work to fit it on screen, (often rather too  many changes), the same is not true when going the other way.

Novelizations far too frequently read more like film scripts with a little linking narration, with atmosphere, perspective, character background and all the other things which suit a good book as opposed to a good film falling by the wayside.

This however is absolutely not true of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor's Red Dwarf novels.

Much as Douglas Adams did with that other classic of English comic sci-fi, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, when translating from the initial radio play into a plethora of different media iterations, Grant and Naylor tell the story of Red Dwarf in the novels from the beginning rather than simply writing down episodes in the series. This not only gives them far more opportunity to introduce each of the four iconic cast members of the mining ship Red Dwarf, but also allows them to show considerably more of the world the ship comes from.

One of the first things that really struck me upon rereading Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers, is that a lot of what is described, both in terms of the characters and the world is actually pretty tragic, but is told with such rip roaring good humour that you barely notice.

Where the story begins in the late 21st century, it paints a pretty grim picture (one which will only get grimmer). Despite colonizing the solar system and technology that can recreate dead people as holograms, the world is still a polluted and generally crime ridden mess. Designer drugs, android brothels, people living dead-ended lives in dull pointless jobs and drowning their sorrows in alcohol, despite all the futuristic technology on offer (Star Trek this is not). The odd thing is that somehow the authors manage to make all of this extremely light hearted. How they achieve this can be summed up in two words: writing style.

The  narration never drags but always clips along at a good pace, however the jokes don't stop coming, either in the form of highly idiosyncratic descriptions (I've never read a book that uses so many literally spelt out sound effects or mangled words), strange or sardonic asides, odd little details or just bursts of crazy. The description for example of  Saturn’s moon Mimas having traffic in the form of hopper cars that bounce through the street like kangaroos and park on top of each other, with the explanation: "In London people parked wherever it was possible. In Paris people parked even where it was not possible. On Mimas, people parked on top of the people who parked where it wasn't possible."

As well as  simile the authors use every wordsmith's trick at their disposal to pepper the dialogue, descriptions and narrations with constant humour. It's absolutely clear that this is a book which is meant to be read aloud (I can highly recommend the audio recording by Rimmer himself, the immortal Chris Barrie, who definitely does full justice to the humour). I am particularly amazed that scenes of actual slapstick or physical comedy can still be wonderfully hilarious in writing, a trick I don't think I've ever encountered anywhere else. Scenes such as  one character having the motion of a hopper cab jolt a lit cigarette from his lips, which he then sits on, leading to him first trying to put the butt out with a flask of boiling coffee then douse his trousers in cleaning fluid (believe me, the authors describe this scene far more side splittingly than I could) do not read as either divisive or sadistic, but genuinely hilarious.
As with any great comedy however, the best element is character, and the iconic crew of Red Dwarf don't disappoint.

One of the things that often felt a little off in the series was it's principle character, David Lister. Sometimes, he was portrayed as the total complete and utter slob, the epitome of every laddish stereotype, nothing more than an ignorant, beer swilling, curry eating lout with few saving graces at all. Yet at other times he is inherently a good and decent man who pretty much just wants to settle down and have a normal life with someone who cares for him. These aspects often over balanced in the series, with Lister at one moment wanting to just snog lots of girls and get drunk, and the next pining over his lost love Kristine Kochanski.

In the book however, this balance in Lister is exactly right.

We first meet Lister on Mimas, where he's wound up after a drunken night out, living in a left luggage locker. I don't think I've ever seen quite this mix of comical chav grossness and yet a sympathetic character in a bad situation, albeit one of his own making. The story then takes him through his signing up aboard Red Dwarf and his affair with flight officer Kristine Kochanski, a romance that is both extremely sweet, and also hilariously baffling.
This first half of the book also introduces the antagonism between Lister and his room mate, the obsessive Arnold J Rimmer.

Rimmer is an amazingly well-crafted character, since what is wonderful about Rimmer is again by rights we should feel sorry for him. He is the eternal under-achiever, longing for status and recognition, feeling over-shadowed by his family and over-looked by life in general. Really, he's a very sad man.
The plain fact however is that Rimmer is such a vile, neurotic, officious, petty-minded, self-pitying excuse for a human being that you really can't have too much sympathy for him at all! And yet, you equally understand that Lister and Rimmer need each other, indeed their banter is one of the high points of the book and provides some of both its funniest and most poignant moments.

Of course, as anyone who has seen even one episode of the series knows, Lister winds up three million years out in deep space as the last human being in existence with nobody but a hologram of the odious Rimmer and a senile ship's computer for company. However, the fact that the book takes roughly half its length establishing the two principle cast members and the world they come from, rather than the barely fifteen minutes of screen time in the first episode of the TV series, means that your relationship with both characters and their background is far more real.

The rest of the book involves the introductions of the last two characters: The Cat, a life form evolved from Lister's pet cat and Kryten, a cleaning obsessed mechanoid. Each of these introductions is played out as a long scene, and each changes genre slightly from the Cat's almost horror style introduction as the crew explore the ship's hold, to the disastrous story of Kryten's crash aboard another star ship.

I did find The Cat and Kryton a little too over-exaggerated here, particularly Kryton, who I am too much used to being the stable, nurturing presence in the crew, though in fairness at this point we have moved into true sci-fi territory so there wasn't quite as much time for as in depth a treatment of Kryton as there was of Lister and Rimmer. It could also be argued that the Cat, by nature of being a vain, fashion-obsessed self-absorbed feline will always be a shallow character, indeed I'm reminded of his own description of himself from the TV series: "A shallow guy with a great ass!"

This latter half of the book is also where the real sci-fi plot kicks off, and though it does seem a little episodic in parts, it plays with the ideas wonderfully, especially because of the sheer weirdness of the writing. The sensations of entering light speed, the problems of predicting future echoes, the nature of faster than light travel and navigation. Though these are familiar concepts to anyone with even a passing knowledge of space fiction, Grant and Naylor handle things in such a completely charming, quirky way that you feel every concept is new, though wisely (and unusually for an exploration of such hard sf type ideas) they still make character and comedy the forefront of their work, with Rimmer, arguably the most complex of the cast the major character to be examined as the book reaches it's conclusion, an examination which is of course hilarious.

My only issue with the book is its ending. For a book that has spent so much time carefully pacing its way through its world and introductions, it literally rushes to a conclusion, and not even a complete conclusion, a setup for the second book that is so blatant that even a glance at the title of the sequel will sign post when you reach it. This setup and the themes it explores are fascinating and again, are deeply routed in the book's characters, however I wish more time had been spent getting there and less time on laying out the theme and then saying effectively "to be continued...".

Part of this rush to a cliff hanger is because of a writing style tendency that affects the authors several times throughout the book, a habit of radically jumping between unrelated scenes and characters after leaving at a seemingly arbitrary point. Often, this is extremely funny when you realize where it is going, such as cutting from Lister sleeping in his left luggage locker on Mimas to a bored space core recruiting officer reflecting on the quality of the core only to be presented with the  slobby Lister wanting to sign up. In some places though it is simply jarring, such as towards the book's ending, where three members of the crew are left in a seemingly impossible situation while the viewpoint cuts back first to Rimmer's woes, then time skips ahead to simply detail how Lister and company had completed their portion of the action. In a few places, this kangaroo hopping of scenarios even jumps into the irrelevant, as though scenes from earlier draughts of plot elements that were planned but never went anywhere were left in, namely the whole story of the engineer George Macintyre becoming a hologram which actually begins the book yet has zero relation to the rest of what is going on.

Lastly as a minor negative, I will say that though most of the comedy in the book (even Lister's slobbiness) manages to keep out of the realm of toilet humour, there was one scene which described Listers drunken friend Petersen's spectacular fit of vomiting in detail which for some might be too disgusting to be funny. Fortunately Chris Barrie's narration and comic timing saved this scene for me but I know had I read it in print my response would be more likely to have been a wince than a laugh.

All in all however, Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers is a fantastic start to an amazing trilogy. It not only brings the iconic, ill fated misfits of the mining ship Red Dwarf to the medium of the novel but reveals a huge amount of their characters and the world they come from in a coherent, fast paced and actually quite tragic science fiction romp, and yet does all this with some of the finest humour I've ever seen written.

Whether you're one of the generation of sci-fi fans who engage snigger mode every time you see an advert for the firm "smeg" or whether you're completely new to the series and just love the idea of a hilarious, well crafted comic sci-fi with some unique characters, I can highly recommend a trip out into the depths of deep space aboard the Red Dwarf.

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