Directly following the events of Better Than Life, the crew of the Red Dwarf must rescue last human Lister from backwards Earth, and have a series of misadventures along the way. The Red Dwarf crew arrives on backwards Earth (where time flows in the reverse direction and causality follows effect), some thirty years after leaving Lister's remains, to rescue him. They find that Lister is in the process of being un-arrested for a murder - the police take him out of prison, reverse-beat him, and run off, causing Lister to run (backwards) after them. The crew goes along, following Lister to the mountain where they have stashed the Starbug shuttle. They find that the craft is rusted and dilapidated, missing its landing jets, and partly converted to a still by hillbillies. Kryten pulls a pickaxe from the chest of a dead hillbilly, restoring him to life; this is the crime for which LIster has been serving time. The crew attempts to reassemble the shuttle in the brief escape window, but fail to do so. They will remain trapped on reverse Earth for another ten years.
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Meanwhile, in another dimension, Rimmer's alternate self, "Ace" Rimmer, is a high-flying test pilot. Ace is a handsome, confident, and generous man, beloved by his fellow Space Corps members. Ace's test of a new ship drive is complicated by the arrival of a charred and destroyed version of the vessel containing it, complete with a dead Rimmer. A review by "Spanners" Lister, an ace mechanic in this dimension, reveals that the new ship is from yet another dimension; using data from the crash, they are able to figure out how to make the ship, the Wildfire, successfully jump dimensions, although there would be no way for it to return. Nonetheless, Ace pilots the ship and engages the drive, hopping between alternate realities.
Ten years after their failure to escape, the Dwarf crew finally completes their reverse-landing, finding out that the damage to Starbug was caused by a missile-defense locking on to the craft as it landed. The crew, including a now-teenaged Lister and Cat, return to their own reality, but Red Dwarf is nowhere to be found.
Flashbacks reveal the fate of the Dwarf - Holly reverse-engineers the process that regained his intellect, but becomes stupid again in the process. The ship is boarded and commandeered by aganoids, war-robots banished from Earth, and seeking humans to kill. They are delighted to find that Lister is the last man, and begin preparing elaborate traps on the ship for Lister's return. In the process, aganoid genius Djuhn'Keep (all aganoid names are insulting puns given to them by their creators) eliminates almost all of the other robots, only leaving Pizzak'Rapp alive, if drifting in space.
The WIldfire materializes close to the Starbug, damaging the shuttle and trapping Kryten against a breached hull. Ace boards and develops a plan to retrieve Kryten and repair the ship, earning the admiration of the Dwarfers in the process, with the exception of the regular Rimmer, who is jealous. Lister goes on a spacewalk to retrieve Kryten, only to find that Pizzak'Rapp has replaced the friendly robot; Pizzak tries to kill Lister, but is stopped by Ace, who uses a jetpack to trap Pizzak in space at the cost of his own life.
Djuhn'Keep finds Kryten drifting in space and uses him to gain access to the Starbug. He severely damages the ship, but is sucked out into space after Kryten blows another hole in the hull. However, Djuhn has infected the ship's computer with a virus intended to crash it into a planet.
Kryten enters the computer via VR, entering a scenario in which he is a sheriff fighting the Apocalypse Boys. Unfortunately, things go poorly, and Kryten is reduced to a useless drunk. The other Dwarfers enter the scenario as a pack of Western stereotypes, trying to bolster their comrade, but the virus infects their interface and strips them of their powers. Kryten is able to regain his confidence as the others make a last stand against the Boys, and releases an antivirus that saves the ship. Unfortunately, in the process, the virus is able to destroy both Kryten's CPU and Rimmer's light bee.
The teenaged Lister and Cat try to use the retro-rockets to stop Starbug's acceleration, but run out of fuel. They follow the attached tow line to the Wildfire instead, and use that ship's drive to travel to another reality. They find a version of the Red Dwarf where, Lister and the Cat both died in the BTL incident, and join up with that world's Kryten and Rimmer.
In an epilogue, the reader finds out the event that diverged regular Rimmer's timeline from Ace's. In Ace's world, Rimmer was held back in school by a year; in the process, he finds his confidence when he realizes, having failed, he is able to relax a little and actually succeed the second time around. He throws a race at track and field day, letting a boy who desperately needs the win to feel better about himself take first, showing that he has also learned the importance of humility and decency in the process.
Best part of story, including ending:
Rob Grant shows his talent in this solo venture, capturing the oddly-melancholy comedy of the first two Dwarf books in this volume. Dwarf fans, please note: Backwards and the Doug Naylor-penned Last Human do not share continuity beyond their link to the first two books in the series.
Best scene in story:
The torturous backwards logic of reverse Earth provides many intelligent laughs, but the framing flashbacks of Rimmer's early life really animates the book.
Opinion about the main character:
Lister's mix of sloth and good-heartedness makes him an intriguing protagonist.