Rimmer Studies for the Astronavigation Exam (Again)
< an excerpt from the novel Red Dwarf by Grant Naylor (c. 1989) >

Note: “revision” is the British term for what Americans call “studying” for a test.

Rimmer was sitting at his slanting architect's desk, under the pink glow of his study lamp, with a tray of watercolours, making out a revision timetable in preparation for his astronavigation exam.

In all, he'd taken the exam eleven times. Nine times, he'd got an 'F' for fail, and on two occasions he'd got an 'X' for unclassified.

But he persevered. Each night he persevered, under the pink glow. Each night he nibbled away at his skyscraper-high stack of files which stored his loose-leaf revision notes. He nibbled away, trying to digest little morsels of knowledge. Little morsels that stuck in his gullet, that wouldn't go down. It was like trying to eat wads of cotton wool. But he persevered. Rimmer wanted to become an officer. He ached for it. He yearned for it. It wasn't the most important thing in his life. It was his life.

Given the opportunity, he would gladly have had his eyes scooped out if it meant he could become an officer. He would happily have inserted two red hot needles simultaneously through both his ears so they met in the middle of his brain, and tap-danced the title song from 42nd Street barefoot on a bed of molten lava while giving oral sex to a male orangutan with dubious personal hygiene, if only it meant attaining that single, elusive golden bar of an Astronavigation Officer, Fourth Class.

But he had to do something much more demanding, much more impossible, and much more unpleasant. He had to pass the astronavigation exam.

Born on Io, one of Jupiter's moons, thirty-one years earlier, he was the youngest of four brothers. Frank was a gnat's wing away from becoming the youngest captain in the Space Corps. John was the youngest captain in the Space Corps. Howard had graduated third in his class at the academy and was now a test pilot for the new generation of demi-light speed Zippers at Houston, Earth.

'My boys,' his mother would say, 'my clever, clever boys. Johnny the Captian, Frankie the First Officer, Howie the Test Pilot, and Arnold … Arnold, the chicken soup machine cleaner. If you could sue sperm, I'd sue the sperm that made you.'

'I'll do it, Mother. One day, I will become an officer.'

'And on that day,' his mother would say, 'Satan will be going to work in a snow plough.'

If Rimmer hadn't been such a dedicated anal retentive, he would have realized the simple truth: he wasn't cut out for Space.

He wasn't cut out for it.

He would have realized he wasn't the slightest bit interested in astronavigation. Or quantum mechanics. Or any of the things he needed to be interested in to pass the exams and become an officer.

Three times he'd failed the entrance exam to the Academy. And so, one night after reading the life story of Horatio Nelson, he'd signed up with a merchant vessel as a lowly Third Technician, with the object of quickly working his way through the ranks and sitting the astronavigation exam independently, and thereby earning his commission: the glimmering gold bar of officerhood.

That had been six years ago. Six long years on Red Dwarf, during which he'd leapt from being a lowly Third Technician to being a lowly First Technician. In the meantime. his brothers went for ever onward, up the ziggurat of command. Their success filled him with such bitterness, such bile, that even a Christmas card from one of them — just the reminder that they were alive, and successful — would reduce him to tears of jealousy.

And now he sat there, under the pink glow of his student's table lamp ('Reduces eye-strain! Promotes concentration! Aids retention!' was the lamp manufacturer's proud boast), preparing to sit the astronavigation exam for the thirteenth time.

He found the process of revising so gruellingly unpleasant, so galling, so noxious, that, like most people faced with tasks they find hateful, he devised more and more elaborate ways of not doing it in a 'doing it' kind of way.

In fact, it was now possible for Rimmer to revise solidly for three months and not learn anything at all.

The first week of study, he would always devote to the construction of a revision timetable. At school Rimmer was always at his happiest colouring in geography maps: under his loving hand, the ice-fields of Europa would be shaded a delicate blue, the subterranean silica deposits of Ganymede would be rendered, centimetre by painstaking centimetre, a bright and powerful yellow, and the regions of frozen methane on Pluto slowly became a luscious, inviting green. Up until the age of thirteen, he was constantly head of the class in geography. After this point, it became necessary to know and understand the subject, and Rimmer's marks plunged to the murky depths of 'F' for fail.

He brought his love of cartography to the making of revision timetables. Weeks of patient effort would be spent planning, designing and creating a revision schedule which, when finished, were minor works of art.

Every hour of every day was subdivided into different study periods, each labelled in his lovely, tiny copperplate hand; then painted over in watercolours, a different colour for each subject, the colours gradually becoming bolder and more urgent shades as the exam time approached. The effect was as if a myriad tiny rainbows had splintered and sprinkled across the poster-sized sheet of creamwove card.

The only problem was this: because the timetables often took seven or eight weeks, and sometimes more, to complete, by the time Rimmer had finished them the exam was almost on him. He'd then have to cram three months of astronavigation revision into a single week. Gripped by an almost deranging panic, he'd then decide to sacrifice the first two days of that final week to the making of another timetable. This time for someone who had to pack three months of revision into five days.

Because five days now had to accommodate three months' work, the first thing that had to go was sleep. To prepare for an unrelenting twenty-four hours a day sleep-free schedule, Rimmer would spend the whole of the first remaining day in bed — to be extra, ultra fresh, so he would be able to squeeze three whole months of revision into four short days.

Within an hour of getting up the next morning, he would feel inexplicably exhausted, and start early on his supply of Go-Double-Plus caffeine tablets. By lunchtime he'd overdose, and have to make the journey down to the ship's medical unit for a sedative to help him calm down. The sedative usually sent him off to sleep, and he'd wake up the following morning with only three days left, and an anxiety that was so crippling he could scarcely move. A month of revision to be crammed into each day.

At this point he would start smoking. A lifelong non-smoker, he'd become a forty-a-day man. He'd spend the whole day pacing up and down his room, smoking three or four cigarettes at a time, stopping occasionally to stare at the titles in his bookcase, not knowing which one to read first, and popping twice the recommended dosage of dog-worming tablets, which he erroneously believed to contain amphetamine.

Realizing he was getting nowhere, he'd try to get rid of his soul-bending tension by treating himself to an evening in one of Red Dwarf's quieter bars. There he would sit, in the plastic oak-beamed 'Happy Astro' pub, nursing a small beer, grimly trying to be light-hearted and totally relaxed. Two small beers and three hours of stomach-knotting relaxation later, he would go back to his bunk and spend half the night awake, praying to a God he didn't believe in for a miracle that couldn't happen.

Two days to go, and ravaged by the combination of anxiety, nicotine, caffeine tablets, alcohol he wasn't used to, dog-worming pills, and overall exhaustion, he would sleep in till mid-afternoon.

After a long scream, he would rationalize that the day was a total write-off, and the rest of the afternoon would be spent shopping for the three best alarm clocks money could buy. This would often take five or six hours, and he would arrive back at his sleeping quarters exhausted, but knowing he was fully prepared for the final day's revision before his exam.

Waking at four-thirty in the morning, after exercising, showering and breakfasting, he would sit down to prepare a final, final revision timetable, which would condense three months of revision into twelve short hours. This done, he would give up and go back to bed. Maybe he didn't know a single thing about astronavigation, but at least he'd be fresh for the exam the next day.

Which is why Rimmer failed exams.

Which is why he'd received nine 'F's for fail and two 'X's for unclassified. The first 'X' he'd achieved when he'd actually managed to get hold of some real ampetamines, gone into spasm and collapsed two minutes into the exam; and the second when anxiety got so much the better of him his subconscious forced him to deny his own existence, and he had written 'I am a fish' five hundred times on every single answer sheet. He'd even gone for extra paper. What was more shocking than anything was that he'd thought he'd done quite well.

Well, this time it was going to be different, he thought, as he sat carefully colouring all the quantum mechanics revision periods in diagonal lines of Prussian blue on a yellow ochre background…