Redshirts by John Scalzi

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, and Andrew is thrilled all the more to be assigned to the ship’s Xenobiology laboratory.

Life couldn’t be better… until Andrew begins to pick up on the fact that (1) every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces, (2) the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations, and (3) at least one low-ranked crew member is, sadly, always killed.

Not surprisingly, a great deal of energy below decks is expended on avoiding, at all costs, being assigned to an Away Mission. Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely 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.

Redshirts by John Scalzi tells the story of the support crew onboard the Universal Union Capital Ship, Intrepid, and all the perils they face on a daily basis. I've been sitting on this review for a while, partly because I've not had much time to write but mostly because it has taken me a long time to come up with the right words for it. I'm a relative newcomer to Scalzi, having heard lots about him and his various sci-fi works but having never sat down and read anything of his until Redshirts. My first impression - if his other work is anywhere near as good as Redshirts then I can see myself devouring the rest of his bibliography in no time at all.

The story follows Ensign Andrew Dahl, newly assigned as a junior scientist onboard the Intrepid, complete with red shirt. Almost immediately he notices something strange - the support crew are very good at hiding, the away missions have an obscene amount of fatalities, and the officers always seemed to survive the most horrific of injuries and are back up within days ready to face the next away mission. Dahl is determined to find out what is going wrong on this ship, before the next away mission becomes his last. This is a book that exploits the concept of the Redshirt, that guy on the away team in Star Trek that you knew was going to die because he was wearing a red shirt. It pokes fun at all those 70's - 90's sci-fi TV shows in a number of overt and subtle ways. Decks six through ten always suffer from explosive decompression during a fire fight, consoles on the bridge blow up in a shower of sparks every time the ship is hit by an energy weapon, you know, the little things that make sci-fi TV unique. Redshirts is a book that feels more like a tribute than a parody - I found the whole story heartwarming, and never condescending. There are a couple of problems with the story, the first being that the whole story feels like a running gag and by the end you are just looking for the next punchline. The other is that the entire story feels like an in-joke, and I feel like anyone who hasn't ever watched those 70's - 90's sci-fi TV shows will be excluded from enjoying the majority of the story.

Looking at the characters, it is very easy to dismiss them at first as being cardboard cut-outs. The nature of this story is to look at the Redshirt concept, so every main character plays a stereotypical Redshirt who is trying to avoid their likely fate of either dying on an away mission or on deck six. There isn't a great deal of depth or complexity to these characters, but this has been done deliberately, fits within the context of the story, and has been executed perfectly. For those who love their characters, it will mean the book is less than accessible for about the first 30%, but once you get to the first major plot twist it all makes sense with the characters taking on extra layers of complexity because of the bounds by which they personalities have been artificially confined. That said, despite these characters being perfect for the story Scalzi wanted to tell, they are just lacking, and to be honest I can't remember any of the Redshirt's names except for Ensign Dahl and Jenkins!

The writing style for this whole story feels like a script, which again fits in with the context of the story. This can be jarring to read during the early chapters, especially during some of the rapid-fire dialogue that goes on between the characters. Almost every line of dialogue is followed by 'said Dahl' or 'said Jenkins' or 'said...' for whichever character just spoke. As I said, just like a script / screenplay. I'm not sure if this is typical of Scalzi's writing, or if he just wrote it that way because it made sense to the story, but once you start to realize what is going on the narrative style almost becomes a character itself and I found myself laughing a few times at the way the scene was written, not just how funny the content of the scene was. After the completion of the main story, there are three 'Coda's' that act almost like short stories set within the same world. Each one is written with a different point of view style - the first is written in first person, the second is written in second person, and the third (my favourite) is written in third person. All three Coda's have a completely different voice and style but they all work perfectly and help to bring this story to a fitting conclusion.

Redshirts is a book where your mileage will vary based on how familiar you are with sci-fi. I also picked up a copy of the audio book (read by Wil Wheaton, and in my opinion the best way to consume this story) so my wife and I could listen together during a long trip, and we were both in stitches the whole way. But when I played it for a friend they were less than impressed, especially since they just didn't understand a lot of the set-up material or the punchlines. Redshirts gets a 9.0 from me, but I completely understand if you cant get into it and don't like it.

You can read the prologue and first four chapters here:
Ryan Lawler, 9/10

Redshirts is a book I’ve been very much looking forward to. Apart from being a card carrying Whovian, I grew up watching various incarnations of Star Trek, as well as series like Babylon 5 and Firefly, so consider myself at least moderately familiar with science fiction television. Similarly, I’m quite the fan of authors like Terry Pratchett who turn poking fun at literary tropes into an art form. So I was fully well expecting to enjoy Redshirts. Unfortunately, I didn’t!

Ensign Andrew Dahl has been newly assigned to the Universal Union’s flagship Intrepid, the assignment should be an honour, however comparing notes with his fellow new recruits he starts to notice odd coincidences. Why are most of the crew terrified of the five senior officers, and why do so many low ranking crew members die on away missions whilst the senior staff repeatedly live through life threatening injuries and diseases? Also, what exactly is that mysterious box in the Xenobiology lab which seems to solve every problem, and how come one member of the lab’s crew has barricaded himself in the cargo ducts. Comparing notes with his fellow ensigns, Dahl soon realises that there is something wrong not just with the Intrepid or its senior staff, but with the universe as a whole, after all what sort of sensible cosmos contains ice sharks and harpoon wielding killer robots, and why do people; including Dahl occasionally feel the urge to make big speeches or behave nonsensically? Soon, Dahl realises the truth, that the universe of the Intrepid is actually the universe of a science fiction TV show, and all of the fatalities, bizarre accidents and even personal histories of the crew are dictated by the pen of a screenwriter three hundred years in the past, a screenwriter who sees most of the Intrepid’s crew as simply disposable redshirts.

The first problem with Redshirts became apparent right from the start, that is the writing style. Clunky in the extreme with zero description, and a dialogue format which employs “so and so said”, or “so and so asked” literally every time someone speaks. This made the simple process of reading the book quite laborious. It is possible of course that Scalzi did this deliberately, trying to ape the format of a screenplay rather than a novel, however the same process occurred in the three codas to the book, even though each was supposedly told in a different personal view, making me wonder if this is simply the way Scalzi; a prolific screenwriter himself, happens to write fiction. For whatever reason, it caused a definite downturn in my enjoyment of the book from the words to boldly go.

Of course, writing style is not everything, and there are plenty of cases where plot, characters or other facets of a book’s creation can compensate for omissions in erudition. There is no denying that Scalzi does capture the spirit and style of the disposable crew trope extremely well, from the prologue in which an ensign gets eaten by land worms whilst the senior officers survive, to the point the captain orders the xenobiology lab to create a “counter bacterial” (apparently not a vaccine), for the handsome lieutenant with passionate pleas of “not Kerensky!”, despite said disease having ravaged an entire planet and already killing one unfortunate ensign.

The first problem is that all of these jokes are not new. The redshirt trope; along with many other Star Trek foibles, have been a source of parody since the sixties, with even James Blisch’s wonderfully tongue-in-cheek novelizations of original Star Trek episodes containing amusingly self-aware moments.

The second problem is that Scalzi repeats the same theme for almost the entire novel. It’s not enough that the Intrepid is a thinly disguised Enterprise, but the crew have to actually discover Star Trek themselves and realise that they’re on a badly written knockoff. They even meet the writers later on and of course find out about the concept of “redshirts”, just in case the reader hadn’t realised what the novel was about.

Scalzi included several science fiction Easter eggs and asides, however, as with Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, whilst I smiled to see little nods to things I knew from Wikipedia to Frank Herbert; I particularly liked the name of the Intrepid’s medical officer, Doctor Hartnell recalling the grand old first regeneration of Doctor Who, name-dropping can only go so far. While amusing and familiar for a second or two, it doesn’t really go further than that unless the writer is clever enough to use the reference in a particularly weird or offbeat way, as Stephen King did in the Dark Tower with his exploding snitches. Sadly, Scalzi’s references are just dropped into the novel in the hopes they’ll catch the reader’s attention, and so not overly engaging after initially noticing them.

The ultimate and major reason I disliked the book however, even over the writing style was its characters. Most of the characters have little to no backstory with one distinguishing fact, Dahl’s work on alien languages, Ensign Mia Duvall’s supposed relationship with Kerensky, or Ensign Fin’s habit of drug smuggling. The problem is none of these backstories actually affected the characters or the way they interacted. All talked in a whiny, snarky and explanatory mode, with absolutely no time given to finer feelings. Indeed, one early scene in which Dahl calls Duvall “hyper” genuinely confused me, since she’d not showed herself to be anything of the sort. With the characters receiving literally no description at all it was honestly difficult to even keep track of who was speaking, despite the clunky “he said,” “she said,” script markers. Occasionally there were painful attempts at jokes involving pant stealing, discussion of who was “screwing” whom, or when one person owed another explicit sexual favours, but none of this was either humorous, or humanising. With the central (and oft repeated), the premise of the novel being to give some context to the “redshirts,” this flat, unlikable cast was a grievously major problem, since I honestly couldn’t care less whether they lived or not. Indeed with the uninteresting, pasteboard writing style, even when some did lose their lives the descriptions were so lacking substance, I did not even feel the normal sense of shock I would at anyone’s death, let alone the supposed death of a main character of the novel who we’d spent time with. Again, perhaps this was intentional on Scalzi’s part by giving the redshirts the same lack of personality they’d receive in a TV episode, however trying to make us care about the redshirts by making the redshirts simply uninteresting redshirts is not surreal, clever, or absurdist, it's simply absurd.

The one character I actually did care about was the reclusive Ensign Jenkins, and that because only in the case of his wife did we get what we needed for the rest of the redshirts, the story of a real person with human feelings and connections to care about. Jenkins was even the one character who actually received a word of description, albeit just odd references to him being hairy.

I find it astonishing that the Next Generation episode The Bonding, a story themed around the death of a crew member on an away mission, a thirty year old episode of the series possessing the trope which Scalzi is attempting to question, managed to do a far better job at actually making me feel anything in 45 minutes using a guest character than Scalzi did here in an entire 9 hour novel.

Unfortunately, the basic progression of plot events did not improve matters either. Scalzi seemed so bent on running his metafictional premise into the ground, he didn’t take time to stop for things like tension, pacing or even actual human dialogue which didn’t involve discussion of his central premise. The introduction of self-obsessed actors, self-important writers, selfish rich playboys, and the snobbish world of Hollywood TV production hardly helped either.

The main plot with the Intrepid ended a couple of hours before the end of the book, with a hand waving explanation and a childish little aside, though even here Scalzi couldn’t leave meta fiction alone and had to imply that shock horror, this might actually be taking place in a book! A revelation which I was actively expecting and which I greeted with a resounding “meh”.

There then followed three codas, the first two of which simply seemed to exist just to yet further prolong the metafiction premise and give us more time with dislikeable characters.

The third coda was at least touching, since it dealt with Jenkins’ wife, however for me this was very much too little, too late, and I can honestly say my chief feeling upon finishing the book was relief that it was finally over.

Metafiction is not a new idea. I first ran across it when I was fifteen reading Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World as an introduction to philosophy. Since then I’ve been amused by it in authors like King and Pratchett, the Doctor Who audio story The Fourth Wall, and the heart breaking Deep Space 9 episode Far Beyond the Stars, as well as many other places, heck it was a central idea of the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Last Action Hero which Scalzi himself acknowledges.

The problem however, is that metafiction does not automatically make good fiction. It is not in itself particularly surprising or even (when you’ve encountered it previously), really interesting. Indeed, I suspect many of the positive reviews Redshirts has gathered have been from people who perhaps haven’t encountered the premise before and appreciate its novelty, or simply enjoy seeing a novel deal with nerdish niggles about favourite science fiction shows.

Despite being a gigantic nerd myself, for me, metafiction is simply like any other literary trope, good when done well, bad when done badly. Sadly with his dislikeable, one note characters, lack of writing style, and inability to change the tone of his work, Redshirts is definitely a case of meta fiction done badly. Indeed I can’t help comparing Redshirts to the film Galaxy Quest, also a satire on Star Trek, but one which deals with the Redshirt premise, includes likable characters, an optimistic tone and doesn’t leave me wanting its writer to be eaten by an ice shark.
Dark, 3.9/10 It’s worse than that, its dead, John.

7/10 Redshirts is a book where your mileage will vary based on how familiar you are with sci-fi.

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