Review of Redshirts by John Scalzi
by John Scalzi
I don’t know how I first got into Star Trek, but I owe almost the entire trajectory of my life to it. I’m not exaggerating. Aside from my interest in teaching (and even that might have been influenced by Star Trek’s love for exploration and knowledge), that TV show profoundly influenced my decisions. The first online community I joined was a Star Trek roleplaying group. Connections I made on that community led to other communities—though not Goodreads, which I joined because an offline friend recommended it to me.
But my interest in science fiction, both literature and television, definitely started with Star Trek. I can remember getting a shiny new 13” TV in my room after my first TV, which I inherited from the living room, finally stopped working completely. (Shortly after I inherited it, the TV would begin to lose its picture after a few minutes of operation, and the picture would only come back after you turned it off to let the tube cool down. Since I had a bedtime back then, I neither retreated nor surrendered and settled for using the TV like a very big radio, just listening to TVO before falling asleep.) I was really excited to get cable in my room, because I knew I would be able to watch Space, Canada’s specialty science fiction/fantasy channel, whenever I wanted. And Space was constantly broadcasting Star Trek.
I avoided the later series at first; they seemed too shiny and weird compared to the simple and straightforward stories on the original series. My opinion nowadays is somewhat reversed—my favourite, if pressed, is probably Deep Space Nine, but all of the series have their strong points and their flaws. However, every time I catch an episode of TOS again, I am impressed by just how good of show it is. Star Trek did what great science fiction should always do, which is present compelling moral dilemmas and ask questions relevant to what presently concerns our society. I learned a lot about life from Star Trek, and I also learned a lot about the 1960s.
So this is my background when it comes to What Star Trek means to me. I suspect many people have similar stories—if they’re older, the story might involve conventions, meeting a future partner, etc. This special bond we have with Star Trek is one of the reasons why I was so excited about Redshirts. (The other reason, of course, is that I’m a fan of John Scalzi.)
I’m going to go ahead and assume you’re familiar with what a redshirt is, or that if you weren’t, you clicked through to the TVTropes page in that link and did some quick research.
Here’s a one-line, hopefully not spoilerish review: if you despise meta-fiction and books that break the fourth wall (or even look at it funny), don’t bother. If you like meta-fiction, and particularly commentary on science-fiction television, you will like Redshirts.
This is a difficult novel to review without going into spoiler territory. I’m going to try it anyway. However, I am going to talk about a few things in the last paragraph or two that are borderline spoilers. For that reason, if you absolutely want to remain spoiler-free for this book, just stop reading.
Ensign Andrew Dahl is fresh from the Academy and assigned to the Universal Union’s flagship, the Intrepid. From the very beginning, he notices that everyone on the ship behaves strangely. Specifically, people who go on an away mission with a senior officer tend to come back dead. And then there’s the Box, which makes no sense…. Dahl starts to suspect there is something sinister happening, and he tracks down the reclusive Ensign Jenkins to confirm this. But Jenkins has an even crazier theory about what’s happening on the Intrepid. And when Dahl decides it has to stop, the solution will involve time travel, universe-hopping, body-switching, celebrity wrangling, and an intense amount of genre savviness.
With Redshirts, Scalzi hits all the right notes as he satirizes the typical plot of a Star Trek episode. This extends beyond the redshirt trope—he also looks at how absurd it is to send all the senior staff on away missions, particularly when some of them are the navigators:
“It’s a good thing you heal so fast, considering how often you get hurt,” Dahl ventured.
“I know!” Kerensky said, suddenly and forcefully. “Thank you! No one else notices! I mean, what the hell is up with that? I’m not stupid, or clumsy, or anything. But every time I go on an away mission I get all fucked up. Do you know how many times I’ve been, like, shot?”
“Three times in the last three years,” Dahl said.
“Yes!” Kerensky said. “Plus all the other shit that happens to me. You know what it is. Fucking captain and Q’eeng have a voodoo doll of me, or something.” He sat there, brooding, and then showed every sign of being about to drift into sleep.
“A voodoo doll,” Dahl said, startling Kerensky back into consciousness. “You think so.”
“Well, no, not literally,” Kerensky said. “Because that’s just stupid, isn’t it. But it feels like it. It feels like whenever the captain and Q’eeng have an away mission they know is going to be all fucked up they say, ‘Hey, Kerensky, this is a perfect away mission for you,’ and then I go off and, like, get my spleen punctured. And half the time it’s some stupid thing I have no idea about, right? I’m an astrogator, man. I am a fucking brilliant astrogator. I wanna just … astrogate. Right?”
I love this exchange between Dahl and the Chekov-analogue Lt. Kerensky. It succinctly examines the foolhardiness of sending unqualified bridge officers on away missions even as it makes Kerensky, who is a minor character, seem all the more human—it’s not like he wants to be the Worf (TVTropes).
(As an aside, however, the exchange also highlights something that really annoyed me while reading, which is Scalzi’s persistent use of “he said–she said” dialogue tags when it’s not really necessary. We can follow a conversation between two people.)
If Redshirts were merely a romp around a Star Trek-like starship where Scalzi could point out how ridiculous everything is, it would be a fun book but rather pointless. Instead, Dahl decides he wants to do something about what’s going on—and while I can’t reveal the precise nature of what’s happening, he decides the best solution is to steal a shuttle, kidnap Kerensky for plot armor (TVTropes), and use the gravitational slingshot around a black hole to go back in time to an alternate universe.
(I apologize if that last sentence induced an ill-timed nerdgasm.)
Unfortunately, this is about where the book, at least for me, starts to run out of steam. (What an oddly outdated idiom considering the subject matter.) Time travel is difficult in the best of circumstances; Scalzi’s treatment never really gets beyond the fish-out-of-water antics of Dahl and his friends trying to navigate through the weirdness of California in 2012. There are a lot of scenes played for laughs, and in the one case where Scalzi foreshadows something particularly important, it’s clusmy and comes out of nowhere (for those who have read the book, I am referring to the burrito excuse at the beginning of Chapter 19).
What rescues Redshirts is actually something that runs through the entire novel and finally comes to the fore at the end: a sense of profound waste, of loss. It begins with the prologue and the senseless death of Ensign David. It continues with Finn’s exhortation for Dahl to find a way to make this stop. It ends with the Hail Mary scheme involving Ensign Hester. These events are tragic counterpoints to the comedic aspect of the redshirt phenomenon: Scalzi humanizes these characters, makes most of them individual enough for us to appreciate their loss as people instead of plot fodder. As a result, even though the bulk of this novel consists of humourous dialogue and hilarious circumstances, its substance is a lot more serious and more rewarding.
And then there are the codas. The story itself is short, so Scalzi decided to include some extra material in the form of three additional stories: one each in first, second, and third person. These stories explore what happens after the conclusion of the story itself, following three specific minor characters and the ramifications of Dahl’s actions. They’re very well done and definitely enhance the story. The first coda, written in the style of a series of blog posts, is a little long. The third coda, although touching, is a little trite. But I loved the second one; it was moving and addressed questions the story left open that really deserve a second consideration.
This is the part with somewhat spoilery comments.
Redshirts is reminscient of plenty of other stories, several of which Scalzi lampshades in the first coda. This includes Stranger than Fiction, the movie that made me realize what a great actor Will Ferrell is. It also reminds me of the Supernatural episode “The French Mistake” (its title an allusion, of course, to the venerable Blazing Saddles) and also of Sophie’s World, a novel I absolutely adore. I unabashedly love meta-fiction, and Redshirts feels like a Sophie’s World without the didactic approach to philosophy. There’s still philosophy aplenty to be had, but Scalzi assumes his reader is erudite enough to understand what words like “teleological” imply without stopping the narrative to explain them. I like that.
I love certain parts of Redshirts because they appeal to my membership in geek culture. They know the right code words to use, the right poses to strike, and so they meet my approval. But I don’t love Redshirts itself. It’s a good book, and I heartily recommend it to people who, like me, are fans of deconstructing shows they love. Like many such deconstructions, however, the gimmick of the story proves far more memorable than the story itself.