Well, I’d initially planned to read another horror novel but, after being so impressed by the previous book I’d read, the two retro 1980s horror novels I’d been thinking about reading next didn’t really seem as interesting by comparison. Still, I needed to read something. And something good too.
Luckily, a few days earlier, I’d been searching the back row of my bookshelves and found a copy of a novel that I’d really enjoyed when I was a teenager. I am, of course, talking about Doug Naylor’s 1995 sci-fi comedy novel “Last Human”, based on the excellent TV series “Red Dwarf” that he wrote with Rob Grant.
Although it is possible to enjoy this book without having seen any episodes of “Red Dwarf” (and it might actually enhance your enjoyment of several scenes), this book will probably make more sense and you’ll get more of the humour if you’ve seen the TV show before you read the book.
So, let’s take a look at “Last Human”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
This is the 1995 Penguin (UK) paperback edition of “Last Human” that I read.
The novel begins with a brief scene showing the birth of the first ever human. Then, we flash forwards to the distant future where the last human in existence, a slob called Dave Lister, finds himself waking up on a prison ship. He has vague memories of a trial held by genetically-engineered life forms (GELFs) but the charges remain a mystery and all we get to see is Lister’s hilariously inept attempt at conducting his own defence.
Finally, the prison ship touches down on a desolate asteroid. Cyberia. A feared penal colony, where convicts have to spend their sentences in cyberhell – a nightmarish virtual world, designed to cause anguish and suffering.
Meanwhile, another Dave Lister wakes up on a spaceship called Starbug after a long period in stasis. After spending several decades reverse-ageing on a planet where time flows backwards, he is back to normal. It has been worth it though since it allowed him to resurrect Kristine Kochanski, his girlfriend. The rest of the crew – an android called Kryten, a hologram called Rimmer and a stylish humanoid creature that has evolved from cats (called Cat) also awaken from stasis too.
However, it isn’t long before they get an alert about a spaceship stranded on a nearby asteroid. Not only that, the ship seems to be an almost exact copy of Starbug….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it is a very funny comedy novel, it’s also something of a sci-fi thriller with horror elements too 🙂 Yes, the plot gets a little bit convoluted at times, but it all still somehow makes sense and the novel is a rather compelling and amusing read 🙂
I should probably start by talking about the novel’s comedy elements. These are an amusing mixture of character-based humour, funny dialogue, farce, dark comedy, background details, gross-out humour, slapstick, irony, innuendo, parody/satire, witty descriptions and puerile humour. This is the kind of novel that will literally make you laugh out loud every once in a while.
One interesting feature of this novel is that, occasionally, it will shoehorn random scenes from the TV show into the story. Whilst these scenes are some of the funniest moments from the show (and will be even funnier if you haven’t seen the show before), whilst they provoke a lot of nostalgia and whilst they do work in context, it does feel a little bit like lazy recycling.
Interestingly though, due to story events, Kochanski actually says a slightly altered version of Lister’s dialogue during at least one of these scenes. Likewise, the dialogue/story when Lister wakes up from stasis is altered slightly to include Kochanski too.
The novel’s thriller/horror elements are also quite well-written and help to provide some contrast with the comedy too. Not only is there a surprising amount of gripping suspense, but the story’s fast-paced scenes will also often tread a fine line between being slapstick/farce and being “serious” action scenes. The novel also contains a surprising amount of horror too – whilst most of this falls firmly into dark comedy territory, there are actually a couple of genuinely creepy moments here (such as alternate Lister remembering his evil foster mother etc..).
The novel’s sci-fi elements are fairly interesting. Whilst the novel takes the same tongue-in-cheek approach to the genre as the TV show does (and includes some fan favourites like GELFs, the luck virus, spare head three etc..), all of the sci-fi elements are surprisingly well-developed. They follow a logical set of rules that are not only used for some dramatic action set-pieces, but also for comedy too. Seriously, there are lots of silly background details and ironic pieces of backstory here.
In terms of the characters, they’re fairly good. Not only do the main characters from the TV show gain a bit of extra depth, but there are a few interesting side-characters too – such as Rimmer’s son (Michael R. McGruder) and an alternate version of Lister. Given that the novel derives a fair amount of humour and drama from the characters, they are reasonably well-written.
In terms of the writing, it’s really good. The novel’s third-person narration is written in a fairly “matter of fact” way, whilst also being peppered with irreverent descriptions and asides too 🙂 Seriously, the writing style of this novel captures the atmosphere and style of the TV show really well…. Which is to be expected, given that it was written by one of the writers from said TV show.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At a reasonably efficient 310 pages, it never really feels too long. Likewise, thanks to the humour and some well-placed set pieces, this novel as a whole feels neither too fast-paced or too slow-paced. Whilst the novel does have a slightly convoluted plot that can slow things down at times, the pacing becomes a lot more thriller-like during various parts of the story. So, it all balances out.
As for how this twenty-four year old novel has aged, it has aged surprisingly well. Yes, a bit of the humour will seem slightly old but, thanks to the sci-fi setting and the many types of comedy and drama included in the story, this novel feels both wonderfully nostalgic and almost timeless at the same time.
All in all, this is a fairly compelling, and funny, sci-fi novel that is a bit like what a feature-length episode of “Red Dwarf” with an unlimited special effects budget would look like. Yes, the plot gets a little bit convoluted at times and a few scenes are recycled from the TV show, but it still stands up fairly well as a spin-off novel 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get about four and a half.