I have to confess that I don’t know much about science fiction writer John Scalzi. I do know he’s an acquaintance of my favorite author, Matt Stover, and has a pretty cool blog here on WordPress, but until a few months ago, I’d never read a single one of his books.
Then, in July, I ordered a copy of his latest novel, Redshirts.
For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a “redshirt” is slang for a minor character whose only job is to get killed in the middle of a story, allowing the main characters to survive while also raising the dramatic tension. The term was coined for the common frequency of crew members getting killed on Star Trek, especially because they wore red uniforms. The same can be said for just about any minor character getting killed onscreen, but in this case, it’s the main focus of Mr. Scalzi’s novel.
So, the story follows Ensign Andrew Dahl, a new recruit to the Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union. However, within moments of boarding the ship with other “redshirts,” he discovers several unusual factors, like the fact that so many crew members get killed on away missions and that the laws of physics seem to warp just for the benefit of Captain Abernathy and the other prominent officers. He and his fellow recruits try to get to the bottom of this mystery, especially when it seems like events are conspiring to bring them all to a premature death. The twist of the story is that they discover they’re living in a fictional universe that was created for a bad Star Trek ripoff in 2010. With their knowledge of genre conventions, Dahl and his friends have to get to this alternate Earth in the past and convince the show’s producers to stop this senseless slaughter.
I have to say, I really enjoyed this story. It’s got some very clever dialogue all throughout, a nice treatment of redshirts and their contributions to the show, and a surprisingly emotional climax. It’s not an action-packed climax, but a soul-searching one, as real-world actors and writers have to confront their fictional counterparts in a manner reminiscent of The Purple Rose of Cairo or Stranger Than Fiction. I liked the “three codas” (read: extra endings) that serve to deepen the story, giving the real-world implications a little more weight after all the black comedy we got from the world of Ensign Dahl and Company.
If there’s one complaint, it’s that there isn’t a lot of description in this story, but it’s not a huge complaint. You don’t need to know how the starship Intrepid looks or know what kind of alien Science Officer Q’eeng is. Just picture the Enterprise during its Original Series run and The Next Generation, and you should be fine. Above all else, this book is wonderfully witty and deserves to be read by Star Trek fans, science fiction TV fans, and anyone who wants to do a better job at writing characters.
Bibliography: Scalzi, John. Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas. New York: Tor Books, 2012.