Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas

SFF book reviews John Scalzy Fuzzy Nation, Redshirts: A Novel with Three CodasRedshirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi

This is the part where you run and scream a lot.

Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Intrepid, a spaceship that has the reputation of killing off most of its non-essential crew. The captain and senior officers and one or two especially good-looking guys always come back from planetary “away” missions alive (though often mangled up a bit), but always, always, at least one, and often many more, of the crew is killed. When Dahl and a few other new recruits begin investigating, they discover that the statistics just don’t work out right. There is definitely something weird going on. With the help of a computer hacker who hides in the bowels of the ship, they set out to get some answers and make a discovery that completely changes how they view the world.

I’d love to tell you more about the clever plot of Redshirts, but I don’t want to give it away. I hope it’s enough to say that I was delighted from the first page and I laughed a lot. Redshirts is a spoof of Star Trek; the title refers to the ever-changing expendable red-shirted crewmen who go down to the planets with Kirk, Spock, Bones, et al., but usually don’t return. Most Trekkies are sure to find it hilarious. Though Scalzi mocks Star Trek plot clichés, there’s a sincere sense of affection and nostalgia for Star Trek that I found charming. Also charming is the reminder that all those expendables have real lives, too.

Redshirts is self-aware metafiction divided into three parts: a novel and three codas. While the novel is a comedy, the codas are meant to make us think about life and death and our place in the universe. The conceit starts to wear a little thin by the second coda, but rebounds for a gut-wrenching twist at the end. If you don’t like metafiction, Redshirts may not be for you, though I’d encourage you to try it anyway, especially if you’re a Star Trek fan.

I listened to Audible Frontiers’ audio production of Redshirts which was read by Wil Wheaton. I don’t know if Wil Wheaton’s narrations are always so good, because I’ve only heard him narrating novels written by John Scalzi, but let me just say that in my experience, Scalzi + Wheaton = a brilliant performance. Wil Wheaton totally “gets” John Scalzi’s characters (and it’s not just because he used to play an ensign on Star Trek). If you’re an audio reader, you definitely want to read Redshirts in that format. If you’re not an audio reader, Redshirts could convert you.

~Kat Hooper

SFF book reviews John Scalzy Fuzzy Nation, Redshirts: A Novel with Three CodasI 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.

~Marion Deeds

SFF book reviews John Scalzy Fuzzy Nation, Redshirts: A Novel with Three CodasMarion’s review nailed how much fun this book is. I don’t usually enjoy SF or fantasy that’s intended to be humorous, but I giggled my way straight through this book.

~Terry Weyna

SFF book reviews John Scalzy Fuzzy Nation, Redshirts: A Novel with Three CodasWhat if the redshirt extras low-ranking crew members on Star Trek The Chronicles of the Intrepid realized that whenever one of them accompanies the starship’s officers on an away mission to a planet or somewhere, that crew member was extremely likely to be killed?

Naturally, this creates a dog-eat-dog situation where the long-term members of the crew learn to disappear quickly whenever an officer comes around, and the newer members have a very high mortality rate. Finally, a few of the junior crew members decide to try to get to the bottom of this mysterious phenomenon and, if possible, try to find a way to end it.

Redshirts is extremely funny in parts, especially if you’re familiar with the original Star Trek and some of its characters and quirks, but it’s really kind of an odd book at the same time. Most of the book is a satire, a little on the superficial side and very snappy-dialogue-driven. There’s a lot to make fun of with Trek, as fond as I am of it, and it’s not all about the callous and weird ways in which random crew members die. (I did think the captain needed a few sexy alien ladies slinking up to him.) The answer to the mystery of why so many crew members are dying on this particular starship doesn’t really hold water logically AT ALL, but I’ve suspended disbelief on a lot shakier plot lines in my Trek-watching over the years, and I was willing to roll with it.

Then the story gets a little bit more screwy and a lot more meta, and at about the 70% mark the main story ends and the rest of the book is three “codas” written from the points of view of three very minor characters from the first part of the story, telling a little more about what happened in their lives after the main story ended. They’re interesting, but so very different in tone from the rest of the book that the contrast is a little jarring. They’re kind of sobering, in fact. And no, that wasn’t me you saw surreptitiously wiping away a tear as I turned the last page of Redshirts.

~Tadiana Jones

Redshirts by John ScalziRedshirts: Fun metafiction for SF fans, but not worthy of a Hugo Award

I take it you all know Star Trek, Deep Space Nine, Red Dwarf, etc. Have you seen Galaxy Quest? Stranger than Fiction? Saturday Night Live? Well, if you just throw them all together with a paper-thin plot, interchangeable characters, snarky dialogue that’s pretty funny, absolutely zero physical descriptions, and three codas featuring minor characters that try to shift the story’s tone, and you’ve got John Scalzi’s Redshirts.

Sounds like poorly edited, slapdash fiction written for a loyal, unquestioning fanbase? Not at all, this is META fiction, so anything that seems lazy, clichéd, or nonsensical is actually SUPPOSED TO BE, ‘cause this is META fiction that is ridiculing such poor writing and tired genre tropes. Get it? So clever, this Scalzi guy.

This book is a VERY quick read, and the first third or so is laugh-out-loud-funny, but the minute the crew heads to Earth to set things straight, the air slowly seeps out of the balloon. Scalzi knows his basic cable sci-fi tv shows like nobody else, and skewering all the ridiculous plots, killer creatures and robots, disposable redshirts, and bad science is where this book really excels.

Once he turns his targets to scriptwriters and Hollywood producers, I got the feeling he was just writing about himself and wanted to get paid for it. And guess what, the story then features a sci-fi series producer with writer’s block! What a coincidence. But hey, this is META fiction, so that’s okay. In fact, feel free to address the readers directly any time you want, it’s so clever and funny.

And just in case you thought this story was just for laughs, we have three codas (with different narrative perspective, no less) that showcase minor characters in the main story. I really liked the first coda about the scriptwriter with writers block because he doesn’t want to kill off his characters, and the second coda about his son struggling to figure out what to do with his life is touching, but the third coda really tries too hard to show us that “life is more precious and wonderful than we usually take time to appreciate, so go hug someone you love.” Sorry, but those sentiments need to be earned in the preceding story, and they were not, in my humble opinion.

To be honest, I’m surprised this won the Hugo Award for 2013, but Scalzi is famous for active self-promotion, so perhaps I shouldn’t be. I see the runners-up were Lois McMaster Bujold’s Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, and Connie WillisBlackout. I haven’t read those books, so I can’t venture an opinion, but I wonder what other readers think. I do give credit where it’s due, and I absolutely loved Old Man’s War, so I thought that book really deserved a Hugo Award.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Wil Wheaton, a beloved figure in SF fandom since he played Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation. His voice is ideally suited for humorous fanboy SF like Redshirts or Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. He does a great job on Redshirts as well, but inadvertently exposes the amateur dialogue writing in the following way:

“XXXXXX,” Dahl said.
“XXXXX,” Duvall said.
“XXXXXX,” Hanson said.
“XXXXX,” Duvall said.
“XXXXXX,” Hester said.
“XXXXX,” Duvall said.

Every single quotation is attributed to a speaker. It may not be a problem in written text, but it is maddening in audio format, and I feel sorry for the narrator. If it’s clear whom is speaking to whom, narrators should have the right (courage?) to cut this stuff out.

~Stuart Starosta

Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas — (2012) Publisher: Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, and Andrew is thrilled all the more to be assigned to the ship’s Xenobiology laboratory. Life couldn’t be better… until Andrew begins to pick up on the fact that (1) every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces, (2) the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations, and (3) at least one low-ranked crew member is, sadly, always killed. Not surprisingly, a great deal of energy below decks is expended on avoiding, at all costs, being assigned to an Away Mission. Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is… and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  1. Funny thing, next to Boneshaker, this is probably my least favorite performance by Wheaton. Still wonderful, there were just some moments where his minimalistic approach doesn’t work, not to mention the dialogue tags. Other than that, I really enjoyed it.

    My favorite Scalzi/Wheaton paining has to be Agent to the Stars. Just a whole lot of fun.

    • You’re right, Bob, that there is a lot of “he said” in the text, which is noticeable in the audio version. But I really thought Wheaton had the characters down!

  2. Enjoyed your review! Sorry it cut into your vacation time, but wasn’t it worth it? Really enjoyed this one, so glad you did too!

  3. This is one that I have yet to read, but it’s definitely on my To Read pile. I’ve heard so many good things about this book, especially the dialogue, that I knew early on that I was going to have to read it some day. Great review, and you’ve just made me want to read it even sooner!

  4. David H. /

    Scalzi’s spoken about the dialogue “tags” before. It’s a situation where in reading the text, the “X said” repetition is glossed over and isn’t very noticeable. However, the failing is the audio versions where it’s a lot more noticeable (and grating on some people). Scalzi has said at a talk that he’s scaled back on them a lot in recent years because of that situation.

    I don’t know if you listen to a lot of audio or not, but this line here “If it’s clear whom is speaking to whom, narrators should have the right (courage?) to cut this stuff out.” is apparently not very doable, primarily because if they change the text at all when narrating, the audio companies basically have to label their books as “abridged,” which they are very loathe to do. A silly situation as you rightly noted, but that probably won’t change any time soon.

    • correct. I agree that we can’t “trust” narrators to do that sort of editing because if you allow that, then you don’t know what else they’ve edited and then you don’t know if you’re really reading the book the way the author intended.

      I read tons of old SFF in audio format and usually there is no problem with these dialogue tags. I agree with Stuart that Scalzi overuses them and I disagree with Scalzi that his problem is caused by audio format. The audio just emphasizes it, but the original problem is Scalzi’s. If we’re just going to read over the dialogue tags, why put them there at all?

  5. I think they should dump the speech tags in audio. Create a category called “speech-tag lite” or something.

    I *do* read over them on the page, and Scalzi has been clear that he uses them consciously and with intent. His intent is that the reader always knows who’s speaking.

    Stuart, I liked this more than you did, and I thought the codas did have resonance. I liked the narrative perspectives (1st, 2nd and 3rd person) very much. Now that I’ve read LOCK IN I wonder if there’s a bit more with the comatose character than I realized.

    When I read it I didn’t realize it was a Hugo contender, and I haven’t read what it was up against. (I think Robinson took the Nebula that year for 2312.)I agree that it was more “entertainment” than “thoughtful exploration of the way the world changed.”

  6. I liked Redshirts but I’ll agree it’s not the best of Scalzi’s works. I took his Hugo win more as a career one (sort of like Al Pacino getting an Oscar for Scent of a Woman) than for being specifically for this book. Scalzi has written a lot of really good books that didn’t get a Hugo before and after this. I was hoping Lock In would win it last year because I loved it.

    • I can see the “achievement award” idea, Michael. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but there are a couple of OMW novels that I like more.

    • Michael, I visited your blog. I gotta tell you that my glasses are also tinted orange. ‘Cause I’m a Gator. :)

  7. Shannon /

    This was the first Scalzi book I’d ever read, and I found it extremely underwhelming. It was just so wildly in love with itself. It was like sitting next to that dude at the party who keeps making puns and throwing out one liners in conversation and will incessantly wink and nudge everyone around him just to make sure they noticed how clever he just was. It all wore really thin really fast, and I still can’t quite believe it won a Hugo.

  8. Agree with Shannon’s opinion! I thought Scalzi deserved a Hugo for Old Man’s War in 2006 (it lost out to Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin), and Redshirts was up against Robinson’s 2312 (which a lot of readers didn’t like for excessive infodumping), so it could be the acheivement award as Michael said.

    Basically, I have no problems with entertaining SF books like this, but I do expect them to have more substance to take home the prize of Best SF novel of the year.

    Incidentally, I wonder if Scalzi titled his book “LOCK IN” with some hopes of it being exactly that…

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