Title: Red Dwarf Omnibus (Red Dwarf and Better Than Life)
Author: Grant Naylor
Year written: 1989 (Red Dwarf) and 1990 (Better Than Life)
Publisher and year: Penguin Books, 1990
ISBN Number: 0-13-017466-4
This is another older book and one I’ve had for a year or so now, though it was bought second hand on eBay for quite cheap with some other books. It seems to be one of those that’s available from a few sellers on there so if you want it it’s probably the best place to look for a good deal. With the recent series of Red Dwarf finishing it made me want to revisit the older ones (again) and I thought I’d give these a read too. This review is of both parts of the Omnibus, Red Dwarf and Better Than Life, I did consider doing them separately but as I read them as one and they’re basicaly a continuation of each other it made sense to do them both. If you want to skip to the review of the specific book then I’ll do the titles in bold when I start, though they’re very similar in tone so there’s not much to differentiate them apart from the plot, though I have avoided anything spoilery aside from mentioning a few episode titles.
This book, or rather two books, are based on the characters and plot of the TV series Red Dwarf. When this was published in 1990 the latest series was series 3 so anything after that in the TV universe isn’t necessarily canon with this, and vice versa. It’s a sci-fi comedy that pokes fun at sci-fi, has a lot of typically British humour in it and has the odd poke at society as a whole, or parts of it anyway.
I’m not sure how popular Red Dwarf is outside the UK, or even in the UK at the moment, though I know that if you are in the UK and watch Dave at all you will probably have either seen the repeats advertised or the newer series given how often they were on in the lead up to this one. The general plotline of the TV show is that Red Dwarf is a mining ship and, due to an accident, all of the crew was wiped out apart from Dave Lister who was in stasis (suspended animation) at the time. He wakes up three million years later and is alone on this ship apart from a lifeform that evolved from his Cat who was also safe and a hologram of his dead bunk mate Rimmer. There is also the ship’s computer Holly and a mechanoid called Kryten who joins them along the way. That general synopsis could also work for these books though there is more to them and they do differ from the show slightly.
There isn’t all that much to comment on the cover, at least to me, it’s got the Red Dwarf logo that will be familiar to anyone who has seen the show and some basic text on what is in the book on the front with ‘unmissable new content’ which did intrigue me but there isn’t that much of it. The back gives a bit of background on the book, how Lister gets there and pretty much says what I said in the previous paragraph but with some added details on their trip along the way.
This ‘unmissable new content’ is, as far as I can see, a picture of a beer mat that outlines the way they came up with the idea for Red Dwarf, along with plenty of other ideas crossed out along the way, and the script for the first episode. There is a bit of a foreword on this explaining how they had to write the story as if it wasn’t sci-fi, more ‘Steptoe and Son in space on acid’. Some of the characters were also slightly different but if you’ve seen the first episode of the show you can see that a lot of it made it into the final cut. Although this is interesting I wouldn’t call it unmissable new content. Maybe there were additions to the storyline of the books as well, I doubt it but I haven’t read any other editions to know.
As this book is written by the creators of the show it is written in very much the same tone. In fact, a large portion of it, especially Red Dwarf is taken directly from the show. I do like how you learn more about the history and the lore of the world these people live in. You meet Lister before he joins the Space Corps and see another meeting for him and Rimmer. You also learn more about Kryten and the Nova 5 and how his ship came to crash. There is more in depth background on the Better Than Life Total Immersion Video Game which only featured in an episode of the series but gets quite a portion of this first book so you delve deeper into the desire of the characters if they were in it for longer. One of the things that stood out the most to me is how you get to see more about why Lister had the cat in the first place, and there is a reason, which was interesting to see the background that couldn’t be covered in the short introduction to get the series going in episode one.
If you know the TV series then this can either be a good or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it. There are large chunks taken directly from the TV series, whole pages of dialogue that I know pretty much by heart as I’ve watched it since I was little. It would have been nice to have some different storylines with the characters but it does all work, the situations tend to be got to in different ways, the dialogue in a different location or something but it’s essentially what it would have been like if the TV series had been made into a movie. At least to me that’s how it feels. They flow into each other more rather than the way that episodes just sort of stopped and then time passes before you join them again in the next episode.
If you don’t know the TV series and this is the first time you’re meeting these characters I think it’s great. You get all of the best bits, the classic lines from the TV series, and you get to imagine everything yourself. It is hard not to see Chris Barrie’s Rimmer or Craig Charles’ Lister saying the lines so you hear them that way in your head when you know them but without this you can have them look or sound like anything. The setting in the future is well written and you get a lot of description for everything so, even if you can’t visualise the TV series in your head, you still get an idea of how it would look.
Better Than Life carries on where Red Dwarf left off, in the game Better Than Life. A large part of this book is based in there, with the various characters having their versions of paradise and you get to see how they react and get deeper into their psyche. Unsurprisingly, there is quite a bit of sex, or rather talking about it as I don’t think it would be Red Dwarf if they actually got any, but it doesn’t feel off and stays in character, at least to me. This book does seem to be further away from the TV series, aside from the chunk in Better Than Life the storyline in this could be used to tie everything together in a lot of ways, though it does continue onto a third book it could almost be left at the end as a ‘happily ever after type’ ending with the Red Dwarf twist. Although the emphasis is on storylines not included in the TV series there are still parts that are there, a fair chunk of the conversation from Marooned in Series 3 makes it in here along with bits from Polymorph and the idea of a backwards world from Backwards even if the storyline isn’t used. It does keep it all in the Red Dwarf universe and ties it all together but, again, it might have been nice to see some completely new conversations and ideas rather than using old ones, even if they are classics.
Throughout the two books the language is simple, it’s the same as with the TV series really, and easy to understand and anything space related is explained, though often it seems to be made up anyway so it would need to be explained to anyone. I found the books pretty quick to read, they flow well and there aren’t any really slow parts once the story gets going. I did find some of the introduction a bit in depth more than was necessary but it added to the lore of the universe with is being the introduction of Lister and explaining holograms. This is the kind of book that would be good for short bursts as well as longer reads. It was one that I found hard to put down, one where you think ‘one more chapter’ and then it’s suddenly an hour later. It’s also divided into smaller parts and within these there are quite a few chapters, some of them being four or five pages long but still understandable breaks when jumping between characters.
The characters are written exactly as they are in the TV show so it shouldn’t jar for anyone who’s a fan when reading it. They’re all so different and all have flaws but, ultimately, they all have things that make them likeable (even Rimmer) when you read the book so there’s no one that you want to get rid of. They’re a group of people, or beings, thrown together who make the best of what they’ve got and have adventures through space. There’s the slob who doesn’t like authority and will do anything to get off work, the anally retentive one who wants to become an officer but is hopeless at exams so is stuck at the bottom, the cool, selfish Cat (who I think is a great human equivalent of cats), the one who always wants to clean and please everyone and then Holly, the computer who is trying to keep it all together but worries he might be slightly crazy and not as smart as he once was given he’s been alone for a long time.
These are definitely sci-fi, but if you like you’re sci-fi serious and including proper science then these wouldn’t be for you. These books don’t take themselves seriously and there will be no aliens in here, in fact red Dwarf makes a point of this near the beginning, though there are plenty of mechanoids, various technology with AI (including a toaster) and lifeforms created by humans for whatever reason that make up for the lack of true alien life. These are great books if you like British comedy, even if you’re not too into the more sciencey bits, as it’s pretty much a sit com in space with a bit of action thrown in at times. It’s more about the characters than the fact they’re in space, and the way that the last human might react given the people he’s stuck with and the more human side of life in space in the future (even if this future was created in the 80s so can be slightly dated at times).
I think that, of the two, Red Dwarf is, to me, the stronger book. I do like a lot of the story in Better Than Life and the fact that there is less taken directly from the TV show and in that way it might be the better one for fans of the show who want to keep the original storylines as canon and not get it all mixed up. However the strong jokes and the writing in the first book make it stand out more to me, especially if you’re new to the franchise as you get a Greatest Hits almost of the first two series of Red Dwarf with extras. Both books are good and worth a read but it’s definitely a case of start at the beginning, which makes sense for any book series but I know there are some where they can be read alone and you get recommendations of skipping some until you get to the good ones. The first is the best one to me.
If you’re a fan of the show these might be worth a look if you want some extra lore and don’t mind the timelines and situations from the TV show being moved around a bit. If you don’t like the idea of changing how situations happened, or where they happened, from the original then probably avoid Red Dwarf. Better Than life might be a safer option, though you may need to read the last part (part 3: Earth) from red Dwarf for it to make sense, as much as it can. If you have never encountered Red Dwarf but like light hearted sci-fi or British comedy then I’d recommend checking these out.
If not the books then the TV show is worth watching. Which series you should choose is a dangerous topic to start but more people agree that series 1 – 4 are classics with some divided opinion on 5-8 and the less said about 9 the better. 10 and 11 are the newest but not the best place to start, though maybe if they’re the first ones you see they’ll be more enjoyable as it seems to be longer term fans who have a bit of a love it or hate it reaction to different episodes there.