Redshirts by John Scalzi

Tor, June 2012  
Hardcover, 320 pgs         
ISBN 978-0-7653-1699-8            
Advance review copy courtesy of the Publisher, Tor        

The Intrepid is the flagship of the Universal Union, the naval fleet of the galaxy in the 25th Century.  When new members of the Union are assigned to the ship they begin to take great notice of the growing list of casualties of lesser crew members and the impossibly surviving Captain, Medical Officer, and Science Officer. These ensigns start to question these coincidences.  Or at least ensign Andrew Dahl begins to question how Captain Abernathy, science officer Q’eeng and ‘astrogator’ Kerensky survived when they should have each died ten times over. Dahl is, of course, a red shirt, so are his companions Jimmy Hanson, and Maia Duvall.

In Redshirts, Scalzi plays on one of the older tropes in science fiction, at least that of the expendable characters.  The old trope that was codified by Star Trek (the original series) wherein Spock, Kirk, McCoy and a guy wearing a Federation issued Red shirt would land on the planet only for three of the four members of the away party to make it back to the U.S.S. Enterprise. This is par for the course since the Red shirted member of the away team is played by an unknown actor. Except when those characters are real people (or as real as fiction characters from a novel who are fictional characters on a TV Show can be) become ‘aware’ and realize the lesser crew members assigned to away parties are always dying.  When Dahl and his companions encounter a man or ‘yeti’ as they call him, named Jenkins (think the mysterious Laszlo from the 1980s comedy gem Real Genius), they learn of the power of Narrative, and specifically the Narrative of a show called The Chronicles of the Intrepid.  So yes, Scalzi is going for the whole meta-fiction thing here and for the most part, I felt it worked. No doubt Scalzi’s work on Stargate Universe aka SG:U (criminally cancelled far too early by the network once known as the SciFi Channel), informed a good deal of the inner workings of how a space-based science fiction television show works.  The comparisons between SG:U and The Chronicles of the Intrepid end there because – even as Dahl and his fellow Redshirts note – The Chronicles of the Intrepid is written terribly and SG:U was terrific.

As with many of his previous novels, there’s a good dose of humor throughout the novel particularly in the dialogue between Dahl and his fellow redshirts. The repartee felt genuine and natural, something that I’ve always felt Scalzi did very well. At times; however, the back and forth confused the forward momentum of the plot as the characters bantered about what they should do, what was happening, who to believe, etc.

After the close of the novel proper, Scalzi offers up three codas giving insight into the characters affected by the actions of the Redshirts.  These scenes, particularly the final coda were moving and in a sense, reminded me a bit of the scene after the end of Animal House wherein we learn that John “Bluto” Blutarsky (John Belushi’s character) winds up becoming a senator. Seeing where the characters end up in the future after we’ve closed the book on them can be a neat trick and in this case, one that Scalzi plays pretty well even if there’s a feeling that he’s trying to have his cake and eat it too.  Then again, what’s the point of having cake if you can’t eat the damned thing, right?

Redshirts may not be Scalzi’s best novel, but it succeeded in making me laugh a great deal and had the all-important powerful pull to keep reading to find out what happens next. He does walk a fine line of pandering to genre fandom that others might not feel worked as well as I did. I’m sure Scalzi’s constant readers will love the novel, the book has a great deal of appeal to genre readers and those who don’t tip their toes into the genre very often.  In fact, that is probably Scalzi’s overall strength as a Science Fiction writer and something I’ve noted in my past reviews of his work – his ability to appeal to both genre and non-genre readers.  Redshirts is not an exception to that rule. With the book publishing in June, it makes for a perfect summer getaway read.



© 2012 Rob H. Bedford

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