John Scalzi: Redshirts

Redshirts is just about the perfect vacation book: It’s a page-turner, it’s funny, and it’s thought-provoking.

It takes place in a Star Trek-like universe, in which crew members of the starship Intrepid find that they are at great risk of being killed whenever they go on a mission with one of five key officers. So much so that most of the crew tries to look busy whenever they can’t avoid the officers outright. Our hero Andrew Dahl and his friends – all recent recruits to the Intrepid – try to unravel what’s going on, and find that not only is there a high fatality rate, but that the officers’ adventures are filled with near-impossible levels of coincidence, as well as events which seem flat-out impossible violations of the laws of physics. Eventually they convince themselves of what must be happening, and hatch a plan to try to fix things and save their own lives in the process.

If you’re familiar with the central conceit of the book, then I’ll discuss it at more length after the jump below. If you’re not, then I’m not going to spoil it here. And it’s either going to work for you, or it isn’t. It worked for me (for the most part), and the story is a fine example of characters backed into a corner and struggling as best they can to get out of their predicament. It’s also at at-times touching story for certain characters who realize what’s been happening to them (in some cases for years), and for certain other characters whose confrontation with the fantastic events causes them to reflect upon and change the course of their lives.

Scalzi is, no doubt about it, a fantastic wordsmith. His light tone doesn’t always work for me (and I can easily see it turning off some readers), and he has to thread the needle here to not lighten the tone of the often-gruesome first half of the book without making it feel inappropriate, and then switch gears to the more serious second half without it becoming maudlin. He succeeds at this quite well, and I was constantly impressed with how funny the book was, but also how clever it was.

As I said, the similarity to Star Trek is deliberate, but it’s not – as I’ve seen a few observe – fan fiction by any reasonable measure. It’s also not metatextual in that it’s not really commenting on Star Trek or similar shows. (If it’s commenting on anything, it’s poking fun at the bad writing that creeps into – if not pervades – most TV shows which have to crank out 20+ episodes per year.) It’s using the basic framework of Star Trek to tell its own story, and I think by-and-large it is respectful of the genre while still being realistic about its sillier aspects.

Unless you take your Star Trek too seriously, or can’t connect with Scalzi’s writing style, I think Redshirts is well worth a read.

Some more spoiler-laden discussion after the jump:

It was pretty clear from early on what the story’s gimmick was going to be (telegraphed deliberately, I think – certainly the full reveal occurs about halfway through the main story). The big question for me was: Is the story going to use the gimmick just to set up an entertaining adventure about fixing the Intrepid‘s environment, or is it going to consider how things got this way? Given the relative brevity of the book, I wasn’t surprised that it was “only” the former. Honestly I was a little disappointed in this as I think crunchy explorations of how and why fiction intrudes on the real world (in fictional settings, of course) are fascinating. (There are not very many good SFnal stories of that sort that I know of; the film Dark City, a couple of issues of the comic book Planetary; but SF – as opposed to fantasy or mainstream fiction – doesn’t generally take that tack.) However, I think the writer has to have the how and why firmly entrenched in the core of the story, and not graft it on afterwards, and clearly Scalzi had the general outline of the premise without any of those other issues, and I’m glad he didn’t try to graft them in awkwardly.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with what the book turned out to be; I’m just saying that as a reader I kind of wished the story he had come up with had taken a different turn. It was also a source of tension for me as the reader which I bet Scalzi didn’t plan on.

I was also just a tad disappointed that the trip back in time didn’t go to, say, 2030 rather than portraying a totally made-up show from a few years ago. But again, probably outside the scope of what Scalzi wanted to do with the story.

All that said, I very much enjoyed the trip back to the past. While the encounters by Dahl and his fellow redshirts were enjoyable but mostly not terribly deep, Kerensky coming to grips with what had been happening to him was very well done. And the three codas showing the effects of the redshirts’ trip on present-day characters were very well written, especially the final one, so the set-up in the main story paid off there.

I thought the additional layer of Dahl realizing he’s the hero of a different story was perhaps a bridge too far. I think I would have preferred to jettison that in favor of a slightly meatier epilogue with the crew of the Intrepid a year or two later when the officers realized they had been manipulated by the TV show for years of their lives, but that they were now free from its effects, perhaps giving a little more depth to the captain and the science officer. A code focusing on just one of the other four officers might have been just as powerful as the three in the present day.

But it’s surely the sign of a good story that there were aspects of the story that I wanted to see more fully explored once the book was over. I hope other readers feel the same way.

And the big question, of course: was Redshirts deserving of winning the Hugo Award? And the answer is: Sure it is. What do you think awards are for, anyway?

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