Redshirts by John Scalzi has one of the most fantastically brilliant premises I’ve ever run across. As soon as I figured out that it really is about what I think of when I hear “redshirts,” I knew I had to read it.
Ensign Andrew Dahl and his friends are newly arrived on the starship Intrepid, and swiftly realize that there are strange things going on. There seems to be a strangely high number of casualties among the crew, events frequently defy the laws of physics or logic, and everyone gets awfully nervous about the subject of landing parties. Dahl eventually connects with Jenkins, a crewmember who became unhinged after his wife was killed aboard the ship, and has taken to hiding in the crawlspaces–but who seems to have a firmer grasp on what’s really going on than anyone else. Jenkins has figured out that their lives are dictated by the scripts of a TV show–a bad one–and Dahl and his friends conclude that the only way to escape a meaningless death is to go back in time and find their writers.
Two brilliant things here: this book takes all the weird absurdities of the original Star Trek and sci fi shows like it, drags them out to be even more extreme, and then has characters actually realize how irrational it all is. Second, this is so meta–characters inside of a story have to deal with what it means to be characters. I’m not sure if it’s applicable philosophy, but it’s certainly intriguing philosophy.
Two criticisms: this will sound nitpicky, but Scalzi has a speech tag problem. For non-editors, those are he said, she replied, he asked, etc. Generally authors drop them when they can without losing clarity. Scalzi keeps them, particularly in ‘s a scene near the beginning with two characters swapping dialogue back and forth and a speech tag at the end of every line. It may be a deliberate stylistic choice, but it still made me twitch. Second, and this is very ironic–I couldn’t keep Dahl’s friends straight. They’re all redshirts, all with carefully crafted paragraph-long backstories, and I struggled to remember who was who, or see any depth in most of them. Again, maybe deliberate–or Scalzi fell into the same trap he’s parodying. We’ll say it was deliberate…
I did really enjoy Dahl as a character, as well as Jenkins. In some ways I think I felt for him the most. And then there was Kerensky, one of the TV show regulars. He’s the regular character who gets injured or threatened but pulls through–again and again and again. He’s also incredibly arrogant and very entertaining.
The main story comes to a close with a strange number of pages left in the book, because it’s followed by three codas. The first is supposed to be the blog of one of the TV show writers. I had trouble with this story. The writer is very argumentative, and I’ve never liked narrators who come across as hostile to the reader. The second is…harder to explain, but suffice to say it’s in second person (so the main character is “you”) and I couldn’t get into that somehow.
The third story, though, is about the actress who played Jenkins’ deceased wife, and I really liked her story. She’s trying to grapple with this revelation about the characters of the Intrepid, and with larger life questions and…really fascinating.
All in all, for whatever its quirks and misfires, this book is still worth reading for that so fantastically amazing premise. If you’re a Star Trek fan, at least. I mean–the redshirts figure out what’s going on and try to save themselves. And it’s fast-paced and funny and–well, how could that not be fantastic? 🙂
Author’s Site: http://scalzi.com/