In Brief: In Redshirts, John Scalzi cleverly riffs on the Star Trek universe and its many imitators from the point-of-view of the junior crewmen. You know, the guys with short life expectancies wearing the red shirts.
Pros: The book has some laugh-out-loud funny parts, and Scalzi’s economy of language and ability to set up characters and scenes makes for smooth reading. The story also toys with ideas of creativity and the overused sci-fi paradigm of alternate universes in a smart and entertaining way.
Cons: If you don’t like Star Trek or have some familiarity with some of the tv series, you won’t get the full extent of some of the humor and scenarios. Conversely, if you’re an overly sensitive Trekkie who takes umbrage at any implied criticism of the Enterprise and its continuing missions, you may want to duck and cover.
Review: Last summer we heard John Scalzi plugging Redshirts on a radio interview and the book immediately went into the reading queue. Here’s the premise, straight from the novel’s back copy:
Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, with the chance to serve on “Away Missions” alongside the starship’s famous senior officers.
Life couldn’t be better…until Andrew begins to realize that 1) every Away Mission involves a lethal confrontation with alien forces, 2) the ship’s senior officers always survive these confrontations, and 3) sadly, at least one low-ranking crew member is invariably killed. Unsurprisingly, the savvier crew members belowdecks avoid Away Missions at all costs.
Then Andrew stumbles on information that transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is…and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.
Having read and enjoyed some other Scalzi books, it didn’t take much to get me on board. What I recall from the radio interview was how much fun he obviously had writing this project and describing, as well as how much fun the interviewer obviously had reading it. Throw in the fact that Scalzi worked as a writer/creative consultant on the Stargate: Universe tv show, so know his mass market and media sci-fi.
If you’re going to read and enjoy Redshirts, you have to know a little something about Star Trek, and you’re going to have to accept some implicit criticism of the show, its conventions and cliches. Beyond this, you will likely enjoy Scalzi’s economical writing style and ability to imbue accessibility and realism in his characters.
Take Andrew Dahl, the protagonist and redshirt-prime. Sure, he was raised in an alien monastery and breezed through the Galactic Academy with high marks, but he’s also a fairly regular dude who wants to hang out with friends, see the galaxy, and avoid being eaten by space predators. Andrew and his other newbie friends react to the growing weirdness of the Interepid just as you or I might. They are puzzled, then they are curious, then horrified, then determined. (At least I’d like to think that’s how I’d approach it.) Some of the other crewmen go a little crazy or just avoid the situation and the Russian roulette of Away Missions at all costs – which is another completely rational approach.
And a rational approach is an important concept to Scalzi, as is scientific plausibility. So part of the fun is watching him poke at some of the more implausible plot devices and scenarios Trek-fans know and love. A favorite is the Box, which is a device Andrew and the science team use when faced with solving impossible problems on tight guidelines. They feed the data into the Box, which then provides them with some kind of mostly completed formula or solution. Then they load this on a tablet, go to the bridge, and present the tablet to Chief Science Officer Q’eeng (it doesn’t work if they just email it to him), who then adds a couple lines of code or fixes some random coefficient variable, and problem solved – space plague cured, etc. It doesn’t have to make sense – it just works.
We also meet Jenkins, a sort of free agent scientists living like a hermit in the bowel of the Intrepid. Jenkins lost his wife on an Away Mission, so you can’t blame him for being a little nuts. He’s been tracking statistics on Away Missions, and the data just does not compute. Jenkins introduces Andrew and his friends to the concept of ‘the narrative’, and the plot, as they say, thickens.
You may see where this is going, but if not we won’t spoil it. Suffice to say that I love this concept, and when approached intelligently and skillfully as the author treats it here, ‘the narrative’ is great fictional fun. Scalzi uses this to go a little bit meta, a little bit existential, without devolving into navel-gazing. I dug the overall theme of the artificiality of the narrative and the veiled critique of this concept. Because lets face it: genre fiction thrives on a certain amount of artificiality of the narrative. We expect the main characters to be important enough to matter; we overlook coincidence for the sake of plot; we want to see action against long odds, and implausible but theoretically possible solutions, and redemption of main characters.
One could argue the artificiality of the narrative exists in all fiction – even that self-satisfied segment of literary writers, who pen missives of bleak regret and angst while sipping tea beside the window. But that’s a topic for another time.
The author examines this concept further in three short codas that follow the main narrative as a kind of alternative epilogue. Coda 1 is in first person, Coda 2 – second person (which I thought was a stretch as a stylistic device, but it still works), and Coda 3 – third person. These sections take a more realistic and introspective approach to the aftermath, including the sense of loss and regret that would accompany such a story. The codas also contemplate the power of love and what it means to us puny carbon-based lifeforms (in all deference to Huey Lewis and the News). I’ve heard some criticism of the three codas, and the fact that they’re sort of separate from the main narrative. But folks, that’s sort of the point.
Bottom Line: Redshirts delivers on two fronts: entertaining and humorous space adventure as well as a semi-meditation on the narrative conventions of fiction and storytelling. It’s a quick and satisfying read; more evidence that just like Captain Kirk or Captain Picard, John Scalzi knows what he’s doing.