While mainstream culture wrings its hands, the science fiction and fantasy community has been desperately grabbing at plots and sub-plots and world building backstories from books, comics, TV and movies to find the perfect metaphor for the strangely lazy yet fright-weighted times of the ongoing pandemic. But they all seem to fall short. The disease apocalypses that have infected sf&f culture over the decades (I'm surprised no-one has tried before now to stuff them all under one unifying sub-genre tent of "disease punk" or "germ punk" or "infection dark" something pretentious and overwrought like that) are all too extreme, cutting down the populace like machine-gun fire and leaving an empty, potentially burning world, where the few survivors battle desperately against zombies or mutants or packs of feral goats or whatever. As others have noted, the pandemic stories of the past never considered that aside from a large number of tragic deaths that were, none-the-less, a tiny fraction of the total human population, most of us have survived this scourge by doing nothing except sitting around at home walking the razor's edge between boredom and existential anxiety; wanting to be close to our loved ones but getting really, really, really tired of them if we've been stuck with them in close quarters for too long; and worrying about where the next square of toilet paper was going to come from.
In 1988, the titular Jupiter Mining Corporation ship Red Dwarf lumbered in its delightfully clenched-fist-ugliness across TV screens for the first time, initially in the UK, but later around the world. The show revolves around the afore-mentioned character Dave Lister, a loveable loser who's wound up, through a series of drunken misadventures, on a colony on one of the moons of Jupiter with no money to get home. He takes a job aboard the gigantic Red Dwarf as a junior-grade janitor/unskilled maintenance worker/chicken-soup-dispensing-machine-repairman as a means to get back to Earth for free. But the 'Dwarf isn't heading straight home, rather, it's departing on a mining expedition around the solar system set to last a couple of years before it returns to Earth. Depending on which version of the story you like best, the show or the novel, Lister's either using this as a chance to earn money to buy a hot-dog stand on Fiji someday, even foregoing buying deodorant and socks in order to save his cash (as he states in the TV series), or he sees it all as work he doesn't want to deal with and concocts a scheme to get himself arrested and thrown into the ship's stasis brig, sleeping the years away without aging, and getting tossed off once the ship gets home (as in the novel).
Along the way, the writers, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, have penned a few Red Dwarf novels that aren't tie-ins for the TV show so much as alternate and expanded versions of some its stories or elements, rather like the different takes on Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that were expressed as radio plays, novels, TV series, and movies. Attempts have been made to copy Red Dwarf in the US, but they've failed, and fans (myself included) remain devoted to the original.
So why is Red Dwarf the science fiction story that best encapsulates the current pandemic? Because, at its heart, it's a story about normal (if incredibly lazy and annoying) people who are isolated and facing extraordinary and potentially deadly situations, but who mostly do nothing. They get into arguments with an AI-equipped toaster. They orbit a moon several times because it looks like the bum of one of their favourite actresses. They shoot their own music video. It's best summed-up in an exchange in the first episode of series V, "Holoship," where the boys try to recruit the holographic crew member of another ship when it looks like Rimmer is going to leave:
Harrison: "Basically you spend your time salvaging derelict spaceships, playing poker, and eating curries."
Lister: "Well we don't do that much salvaging."
The quests to find lemons so they can power their time-travelling remote control to escape from Roman-era Earth, the fleeing from resurrected tyrannosaurs in the cargo holds of the 'Dwarf, and the battles with assassin cyborgs and all very much secondary to the pointless minutia of playing video games and trying to keep the ship from falling apart.
And that's relevant to most of us. Yes, some people are putting themselves at risk of infection on the front lines of hospital emergency rooms, some people are legitimately worried about the health of imuno-compromised loved ones, and some people have been trapped overseas with no way to get home. But most of us have been sitting around the house, making an effort at work or studies (assuming you haven't been laid-off), and just trying to avoid going crazy with boredom. Rimmer and Lister take courses and tests for promotions that don't matter anymore, and all of us probably know several people who've become obsessed with learning to make the perfect sourdough bread, which. let's face it, isn't going to matter when bakeries reopen (if they haven't in your area already) and you can just walk down the street and buy one faster, and maybe at a lower cost than it would take to make yourself, and let's be honest, one that probably tastes better than yours. Lister gets upset when Cat eats the last sparerib in the universe (a shortage that's echoed in another episode where Holly warns they're out of cow's milk and goat's milk, and down to dog's milk, which they won't be able to tell whether it's spoiled or not), and we've all had the same feeling when the last square of toilet paper has been used, and we know the shelves at the store are frighteningly, continuously empty.
And Lister is profoundly lonely. Some people have come through this pandemic with spouses/partners and/or children (some couples have worked hard at producing children, leading to speculation early on about the pandemic-related baby boom that's sure to go down in history), or roommates, and so they've had the benefit of company (though some have admitted that too much of a good thing becomes a curse at times). But the rest of us have faced this crisis very much alone. Regardless of whether you've been feeling anxiety over your own safety or that of loved ones, or whether you've been calm in the knowledge of your own health and faith in your local medical staff and global researchers, if you went into this crisis without anyone at your side like I have, if you've trudged through it day in and day out without anyone to be physically present with when sharing your feelings and thoughts, without anyone to hold or make love with, this experience has highlighted in the grimmest possible terms your total isolation. For a lot of us, being single isn't easy to begin with, and in a situation where a pandemic eliminates, or at least severely curtails, the possibility of finding and being with someone, it becomes a much more difficult state of being, and one that leaves you questioning your value as a person more than ever. And even for those who do have someone with them, if there were cracks in the relationship before (never mind the horrific possibility of being trapped in a home with an abusive partner), then this pandemic has likely widened them significantly, leaving that person feeling isolated even when they're not physically alone.
Rimmer is that annoying coworker or relative you have to deal with in Zoom/Skype/MS Teams/whatever meetings, emails, text messages, and phone calls every day (or nearly every day). The one you'd just rather didn't exist at all, but they're there, part of your life — virtually — and there's no ignoring them. They may not have a metallic "H" (for hologram) emblazoned on their foreheads, but these people are our Rimmers. And the worst thing is, just like over the years of the show, you may find that as time goes on, as annoying as this person remains, you grow to accept them, to consider them a part of your team who you're not prepared to abandon in a crunch, and maybe, just maybe, in a way that you'd never publicly admit, you actually kind of like them on some level. Fans will note that Rimmer actually becomes a physical presence at some point too — first gaining a new "hard light" holo emitter, and then actually having his body reconstructed by nanorobots — and so we might allow that your Rimmer might even be someone who you've been encountering physically during the pandemic. Maybe even someone in your home. Has Lister's hunt for Rimmer's hidden stash of the other crew members' personality discs become a metaphor for your secret or not-so-secret desire to get rid of your roomie or partner for someone else?
Cat is straightforward: Cat is your pet. Your cat, your dog, your fish, your bird, your tarantula, whatever. You talk to your pet, and your cat, dog or bird will talk back to you, after its own fashion. These conversations, especially if you're without the companionship of other human beings, may be the only thing maintaining your sense of self-worth and sanity in the face of the crushing loneliness of the long days of the pandemic. In its own mind, your pet is probably speciesist and likely calls you "monkey" the way Cat refers to Lister, and though it likes or loves you, it would probably have no qualms about eating the last sparerib in the universe rather than save it for you. I know my cat loves me, but she wouldn't hesitate for a second to scarf down the last sparerib. She would probably then meow at me to demand more. But Cat is, ultimately, there for the rest of the Dwarfers, and, for some of us anyway, our pets are there for us. My fuzzball isn't blasting away at marauding GELFs with a bazookoid, but she knows when I'm not happy, and jumps up, purring, for a cuddle to try to help.
Kryten is your vacuum cleaner. Or your washing machine. Or your computer/tablet/phone/whatever. Admit it: you've talked to it at least once while socially distanced from other human beings. Yeah, you have. And when it comes to communications and entertainment electronics equipped with Siri or its analogues, sometimes those gadgets talk back. Kryten is more real than we would have imagined back in '88, if less humanoid.
On the video screen, Holly is your friend or friendly coworker who you communicate with every once in a while and who provides information, perspective, and the odd sweetly lame joke. Holly isn't so much a guide as someone who's stumbling along with you at arm's length who may know slightly more than you — sometimes — but doesn't especially know what to do about things any better than you do. This person will comes in and out of your life for extended periods, maybe even with an identity change. We all have a Holly.
Along the way, you've probably encountered your share of GELFs and killer cyborgs: the managers who drive you hard for product, insisting on hours of voluntary, unpaid overtime, even as they remind you that you're lucky to have a job, no matter how much they treat you like shit, because they've already downsized and they're thinking of doing it again, and in this day and age, there are a lot of people who will never be going back to their pre-pandemic jobs. The GELFs and cyborgs also represent what's happened to everybody in general in this weird, new, post-pandemic world: people have been anxiety-ridden and depressed and paranoid, isolated, possibly deprived of income, maybe grieving for lost family or friends, and very likely looking at life as something scary and fundamentally changed forever. The people that you meet at work, your old social circles, when you're out and about, and maybe even your close friends and family, may not be the same people that you knew before all this. And they may not be likeable anymore. You've also got scutters in your life: those weird little maintenance droids with three fingers on their faces who putter about in the background. These are probably other people in your apartment building/condo, townhouse complex, or neighbourhood going about their business that you largely ignore but sometimes say "hi" to from a distance. And, in the place of the abandoned relics of human civilization, you might find things around your home or neighbourhood that remind you of stuff you like to do out in the world but haven't been able to do for a while because of social distancing, and which may now be potentially dangerous.
And let's not forget Kochanski. The love of Dave Lister's life: Navigation Officer Kristine Kochanski. At the opening of the series, we learn that Lister's had a crush on Kochanski ever since he first saw her when he boarded the 'Dwarf. Kochanski knew who Lister was, but he'd never had the guts to tell her how he felt (though retconning in a later episode claims they did date for a short period before she dumped him). She was killed with the rest of the crew, but, years later, her doppelgänger from another universe joined the 'Boys for a while. Unfortunately, Lister was never able to join with Kochanski in a lasting relationship, and she eventually leaves the ship to go off on her own (although an early episode with a time jump indicates that the two will eventually reunite and marry). If you're single, Kochanski might represent someone specific that you can't be with because of social distancing or travel restrictions. Or maybe, in a more general sense, she represents the idea of being able to have a relationship — something that now might be unlikely because of social distancing rules that may exist in your area, and personal health concerns that some people may have. Kochanski is the love you want but can't have.
And so the pandemic has made us all into Dave Lister. Maybe the Red Dwarf will make it back to Earth someday, maybe our lives will eventually return to something close to what they were like before, or maybe not. There isn't a lot we can do about it. Grab a curry and a lager, kick back, and make the best of it you can. Just like the Boys from the Dwarf.