This is the part where you run and scream a lot.
Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Intrepid, a spaceship that has the reputation of killing off most of its non-essential crew. The captain and senior officers and one or two especially good-looking guys always come back from planetary “away” missions alive (though often mangled up a bit), but always, always, at least one, and often many more, of the crew is killed. When Dahl and a few other new recruits begin investigating, they discover that the statistics just don’t work out right. There is definitely something weird going on. With the help of a computer hacker who hides in the bowels of the ship, they set out to get some answers and make a discovery that completely changes how they view the world.
I’d love to tell you more about the clever plot of Redshirts, but I don’t want to give it away. I hope it’s enough to say that I was delighted from the first page and I laughed a lot. Redshirts is a spoof of Star Trek; the title refers to the ever-changing expendable red-shirted crewmen who go down to the planets with Kirk, Spock, Bones, et al., but usually don’t return. Most Trekkies are sure to find it hilarious. Though Scalzi mocks Star Trek plot clichés, there’s a sincere sense of affection and nostalgia for Star Trek that I found charming. Also charming is the reminder that all those expendables have real lives, too.
Redshirts is self-aware metafiction divided into three parts: a novel and three codas. While the novel is a comedy, the codas are meant to make us think about life and death and our place in the universe. The conceit starts to wear a little thin by the second coda, but rebounds for a gut-wrenching twist at the end. If you don’t like metafiction, Redshirts may not be for you, though I’d encourage you to try it anyway, especially if you’re a Star Trek fan.
I listened to Audible Frontiers’ audio production of Redshirts which was read by Wil Wheaton. I don’t know if Wil Wheaton’s narrations are always so good, because I’ve only heard him narrating novels written by John Scalzi, but let me just say that in my experience, Scalzi + Wheaton = a brilliant performance. Wil Wheaton totally “gets” John Scalzi’s characters (and it’s not just because he used to play an ensign on Star Trek). If you’re an audio reader, you definitely want to read Redshirts in that format. If you’re not an audio reader, Redshirts could convert you.
I tend to be wary of comic science fiction novels, but I had read good reviews of John Scalzi’s Redshirts, so when I was on vacation I picked up a copy at an independent bookstore in the beach town I was spending a couple of days at.
(Shakes fist at the heavens. “Curse you, John Scalzi!”)
Walk on the beach? Nope. Go up to the art center and look at the most recent exhibit? Nope. Drive up to Schooner Gulch and look at those awesome striations where the cliffs surge out of the water? Sorry, nope — because I couldn’t stop reading!
Redshirts assumes that you know (and probably loved) Star Trek. That title is the first clue. The novel is short — which is a good thing considering I didn’t want to put it down — followed by three codas that follow some of the secondary characters.
In the future, the starship Intrepid is the flagship of the line. However, the ship’s mortality rate, especially among new crew members on away teams, is high. Very high. Andrew Dahl, who is newly assigned to the ship, and several of his friends, begin to explore this fact and some other strange facts about the ship. The result is a delightful romp, a send-up of science fiction tropes (time travel, voodoo science and bad uniforms), and a few touching moments as Scalzi encourages us to question what it means to be “real;” and what it means when humans sacrifice other humans in order to save themselves. That last sentence makes the book sound much heavier than it is.
The reader is in on the joke, but in the novel itself Scalzi has one final twist on the story, especially as it relates to Dahl. The codas, First Person, Second Person and Third Person, extend the experiences of a specific group of characters from the story, and they are indeed written in first, second and third person POV respectively.
Scalzi speeds Redshirts along with side-splitting dialogue and recursive meta-fictional discussions that make the book even funnier. (“I hate that we have these discussions now,” one character laments.) The final coda explores a slightly more serious tone and wraps everything up with a sweet, if a tad too coincidental — oh, wait, that’s the point, isn’t it? — ending.
In his afterword, Scalzi insists that this is not a thinly veiled roman a clef about a TV show he worked on, called Stargate: Universe. Um, excuse me… isn’t Universe the one where the hi-tech military trapped on the alien starship use magic rocks to body-swap with people back on Earth? Are you sure this isn’t a roman a clef? To be fair, the little bit of Stargate: Universe that I watched, the show did not employe no-name characters just to have them die before the first commercial break. When a character died, it was someone who had been developed, and that death was a loss, with ripples into future episodes. And that really, those ripples, is largely what Redshirts is about.
And it’s about 230 pages of giggles, snickers, snorts and the occasional guffaw.
Marion’s review nailed how much fun this book is. I don’t usually enjoy SF or fantasy that’s intended to be humorous, but I giggled my way straight through this book.
What if the redshirt
extras low-ranking crew members on Star Trek The Chronicles of the Intrepid realized that whenever one of them accompanies the starship’s officers on an away mission to a planet or somewhere, that crew member was extremely likely to be killed?
Naturally, this creates a dog-eat-dog situation where the long-term members of the crew learn to disappear quickly whenever an officer comes around, and the newer members have a very high mortality rate. Finally, a few of the junior crew members decide to try to get to the bottom of this mysterious phenomenon and, if possible, try to find a way to end it.
Redshirts is extremely funny in parts, especially if you’re familiar with the original Star Trek and some of its characters and quirks, but it’s really kind of an odd book at the same time. Most of the book is a satire, a little on the superficial side and very snappy-dialogue-driven. There’s a lot to make fun of with Trek, as fond as I am of it, and it’s not all about the callous and weird ways in which random crew members die. (I did think the captain needed a few sexy alien ladies slinking up to him.) The answer to the mystery of why so many crew members are dying on this particular starship doesn’t really hold water logically AT ALL, but I’ve suspended disbelief on a lot shakier plot lines in my Trek-watching over the years, and I was willing to roll with it.
Then the story gets a little bit more screwy and a lot more meta, and at about the 70% mark the main story ends and the rest of the book is three “codas” written from the points of view of three very minor characters from the first part of the story, telling a little more about what happened in their lives after the main story ended. They’re interesting, but so very different in tone from the rest of the book that the contrast is a little jarring. They’re kind of sobering, in fact. And no, that wasn’t me you saw surreptitiously wiping away a tear as I turned the last page of Redshirts.
Redshirts: Fun metafiction for SF fans, but not worthy of a Hugo Award
I take it you all know Star Trek, Deep Space Nine, Red Dwarf, etc. Have you seen Galaxy Quest? Stranger than Fiction? Saturday Night Live? Well, if you just throw them all together with a paper-thin plot, interchangeable characters, snarky dialogue that’s pretty funny, absolutely zero physical descriptions, and three codas featuring minor characters that try to shift the story’s tone, and you’ve got John Scalzi’s Redshirts.
Sounds like poorly edited, slapdash fiction written for a loyal, unquestioning fanbase? Not at all, this is META fiction, so anything that seems lazy, clichéd, or nonsensical is actually SUPPOSED TO BE, ‘cause this is META fiction that is ridiculing such poor writing and tired genre tropes. Get it? So clever, this Scalzi guy.
This book is a VERY quick read, and the first third or so is laugh-out-loud-funny, but the minute the crew heads to Earth to set things straight, the air slowly seeps out of the balloon. Scalzi knows his basic cable sci-fi tv shows like nobody else, and skewering all the ridiculous plots, killer creatures and robots, disposable redshirts, and bad science is where this book really excels.
Once he turns his targets to scriptwriters and Hollywood producers, I got the feeling he was just writing about himself and wanted to get paid for it. And guess what, the story then features a sci-fi series producer with writer’s block! What a coincidence. But hey, this is META fiction, so that’s okay. In fact, feel free to address the readers directly any time you want, it’s so clever and funny.
And just in case you thought this story was just for laughs, we have three codas (with different narrative perspective, no less) that showcase minor characters in the main story. I really liked the first coda about the scriptwriter with writers block because he doesn’t want to kill off his characters, and the second coda about his son struggling to figure out what to do with his life is touching, but the third coda really tries too hard to show us that “life is more precious and wonderful than we usually take time to appreciate, so go hug someone you love.” Sorry, but those sentiments need to be earned in the preceding story, and they were not, in my humble opinion.
To be honest, I’m surprised this won the Hugo Award for 2013, but Scalzi is famous for active self-promotion, so perhaps I shouldn’t be. I see the runners-up were Lois McMaster Bujold’s Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, and Connie Willis’ Blackout. I haven’t read those books, so I can’t venture an opinion, but I wonder what other readers think. I do give credit where it’s due, and I absolutely loved Old Man’s War, so I thought that book really deserved a Hugo Award.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Wil Wheaton, a beloved figure in SF fandom since he played Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation. His voice is ideally suited for humorous fanboy SF like Redshirts or Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. He does a great job on Redshirts as well, but inadvertently exposes the amateur dialogue writing in the following way:
“XXXXXX,” Dahl said.
“XXXXX,” Duvall said.
“XXXXXX,” Hanson said.
“XXXXX,” Duvall said.
“XXXXXX,” Hester said.
“XXXXX,” Duvall said.
Every single quotation is attributed to a speaker. It may not be a problem in written text, but it is maddening in audio format, and I feel sorry for the narrator. If it’s clear whom is speaking to whom, narrators should have the right (courage?) to cut this stuff out.