I tend to be wary of comic science fiction novels, but I had read good reviews of John Scalzi’s Redshirts, so when I was on vacation I picked up a copy at an independent bookstore in the beach town I was spending a couple of days at.
(Shakes fist at the heavens. “Curse you, John Scalzi!”)
Walk on the beach? Nope. Go up to the art center and look at the most recent exhibit? Nope. Drive up to Schooner Gulch and look at those awesome striations where the cliffs surge out of the water? Sorry, nope — because I couldn’t stop reading!
Redshirts assumes that you know (and probably loved) Star Trek. That title is the first clue. The novel is short — which is a good thing considering I didn’t want to put it down — followed by three codas that follow some of the secondary characters.
In the future, the starship Intrepid is the flagship of the line. However, the ship’s mortality rate, especially among new crew members on away teams, is high. Very high. Andrew Dahl, who is newly assigned to the ship, and several of his friends, begin to explore this fact and some other strange facts about the ship. The result is a delightful romp, a send-up of science fiction tropes (time travel, voodoo science and bad uniforms), and a few touching moments as Scalzi encourages us to question what it means to be “real;” and what it means when humans sacrifice other humans in order to save themselves. That last sentence makes the book sound much heavier than it is.
The reader is in on the joke, but in the novel itself Scalzi has one final twist on the story, especially as it relates to Dahl. The codas, First Person, Second Person and Third Person, extend the experiences of a specific group of characters from the story, and they are indeed written in first, second and third person POV respectively.
Scalzi speeds Redshirts along with side-splitting dialogue and recursive meta-fictional discussions that make the book even funnier. (“I hate that we have these discussions now,” one character laments.) The final coda explores a slightly more serious tone and wraps everything up with a sweet, if a tad too coincidental — oh, wait, that’s the point, isn’t it? — ending.
In his afterword, Scalzi insists that this is not a thinly veiled roman a clef about a TV show he worked on, called Stargate: Universe. Um, excuse me… isn’t Universe the one where the hi-tech military trapped on the alien starship use magic rocks to body-swap with people back on Earth? Are you sure this isn’t a roman a clef? To be fair, the little bit of Stargate: Universe that I watched, the show did not employe no-name characters just to have them die before the first commercial break. When a character died, it was someone who had been developed, and that death was a loss, with ripples into future episodes. And that really, those ripples, is largely what Redshirts is about.
And it’s about 230 pages of giggles, snickers, snorts and the occasional guffaw.