Redshirts by John Scalzi
Published by Gollancz UK, November 2012 (Review copy received.)
ISBN: 978 0 575 134294
Review by Mark Yon
Ah, humour. It is perhaps one of the signs of a well-developed genre that it is, from time to time, able to laugh at itself, to accept the clichés and the impossibilities, to look at what it does and accept with wry humour that all is not as deeply serious and pretentious as it would like to be.
And with that in mind, Redshirts is one of those books not to be taken too seriously.
The plot’s pretty straightforward initially: an alternative version of Star Trek, without enough specifics to be sued over. The plot develops that old adage that was part of the Star Trek mythos: cast members that you have never seen before, usually wearing a red shirt as part of the security detail, were often killed off in the first few minutes of an episode for the sake of tension and plot development, whilst Kirk, Spock and co (the main cast members) looked on.
Here Scalzi follows it through to a logical literary development. Andrew Dahl is a newly assigned crew member to the Universal Union Capital Ship Ensign. Working in the Xenobiology Department, he soon realises that the ship has a fast turnover of crew, often in bizarre and quite imaginative ways. He soon realises that being assigned to an away team is not a privilege but a means of making up the numbers, with the chances of coming back increasingly unlikely. Most of the story is about how Dahl and his other newly-assigned friends survive, and avoid being put on an Away Mission.
This runs the risk of being a one-trick pony. It is to Scalzi’s credit that there’s usually enough going on to accept or avoid the plot’s limitations and weaknesses. The characters are likable enough for the reader to want to know what happens next or how the next unlikely death is avoided by even-more-unlikely means. The main cast are appropriately pompous and yet identifiable by turn. The impossibility of some of the plot is made funnier when the reader realises that such things can (and have) happened in many a TV series. The way that all the other crewmembers avoid interacting with the lead characters just in case they’re asked to do something that would mean their doom, the way that all the main characters speak in clichéd dialogue as if from a TV episode, the ingenious deaths arranged for other crewmembers and the magical ‘Box’ (we don’t know what it does, but it does it, usually just in time) are all worthy of parody.
The main problem is that Scalzi can’t keep it all quite going at the very end. What he does about 80 pages in is do something that is either ‘crazy’ or ‘genius’. There is a moment for what many readers will be where the story ‘jumps the shark’ and fiction in another medium is connected to this literary tale. Dahl has a Truman Show moment, and he and his colleagues become aware that they are slaves to the Narrative in an alternate timeline.
Dahl’s discovery of ‘something big’, and the real reason for all those deaths, brings the book down to the ground with a thump. After playing it for laughs up to this point, it does read a little like another book, all of a sudden – Redshirts Reach Earth, if you like. Though it is, at times, engaging meta-fiction, for me it doesn’t quite fully work and rather deflates the jaunty premise indicated at the beginning. There’s a bit of running about and more deaths before an ingenious plan to stop the routine pattern by using another time-honoured TV cliché – time travel. This picks the tale back up again to a logical conclusion.
There are three Codas at the end that give you alternate endings, created as a result of their actions – teasers to other episodes in ‘the series’, if you like. Cleverly, they are each written from a different point of view – first person, second person, third person. They create another interesting perspective to the tale.
In summary, Redshirts is pretty much what you should expect. Anyone who has read older SF (such as Heinlein’s Space Cadet) will recognise a lot of the stereotypes, and Scalzi doesn’t miss a chance to point them out. In a more cynical age, it’s funny, especially for those in the know. A love (or, indeed, a hate) for Star Trek will help you understand what’s going on, although it’s not essential. A literary version of Galaxy Quest, with just enough for the non-SF fans to follow without difficulty, and enough trivia and TV-geekery for the SF fans to squee over. It’s not going to make you laugh out loud, but in places it is going to make you grin – inwardly, if not on your face.
Not a total success, but intelligent and at times silly enough to win readers over.
Mark Yon, December 2012