Book Review: John Scalzi’s ‘Redshirts’

The secrets of the Universal Union’s flagship are exposed as newbie crew members continue to die exquisitely meaningless deaths in John Scalzi’s new sci-fi sendup, “Redshirts”. It isn’t an official Star Trek novel, but the title gives it away as a Trek spoof. The TrekMovie review follows…

 

REVIEW: Redshirts – A novel in three codas
by John Scalzi
Hardcover – 320 pages
Tor Books – June 2011 – $16.49 (Amazon)

As far as things go in the Universal Union, it doesn’t get much more prestigious than the Intrepid, fleet flagship, and home of Captain Abernathy, Science Officer Q’eeng, and a whole host of other spectacular and not-so-spectacular spacers. Enter Ensign Andrew Dahl, fresh off a stint in a monastery on the planet Forsham, where an ongoing religious brouhaha has ensured that his safety is less than minimal. After some time at the Union’s Academy, he is posted to the Intrepid, where he quickly discovers that little is quite what it appears.

Aboard the Intrepid, nonsense seems to be the normal routine. Gibberish passes for science, the same decks keep getting blown out, a wild yeti roams the bowels of the ship, and new crew members routinely die in the most improbable of ways.

Welcome to the world created by John Scalzi in his new novel, “Redshirts”.

As the story unfolds, Andy Dahl befriends several Intrepid crew members who quickly discover that everyone on the ship is aware of a very real trend among new recruits – they don’t tend to survive very long. No, not survive in the sense of make it on the Intrepid… survive in the sense of live and breathe.

Of course, ‘middle management’ has already figured out a solution, compliments of a certain biological entity aboard who has already managed to figure out the system, a way to game it, and the insanity behind it.

Now he just needs to send Andy Dahl and his friends on a bit of a trip, and what could possibly be a better excuse than to have Dahl sent on a mission back to Forshan where he would, of course, be facing a particularly gruesome death.

To be honest, having never read Scalzi, I had no real idea what to expect in terms of writing style and perspective. As president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and a New York Times bestselling author, Scalzi’s name brings a certain expectation with it to reading (even if only by way of these distinctions). I am not quite sure that I would say that “Redshirts” disappointed… but I am sure that I can say that it’s not what I expected.

For one, the story doesn’t remain confined to a far-flung future, but finds a firm connection to the here and now, namely in the minds of three Orange County, California residents – Nick Weinstein, Matthew Paulson, and Samantha Martinez. The trio, living lives that have only the remotest of connections, influence (or are influenced by – the narrative leaves that an open-ended exploration) events and lives for Dahl and his friends.

The bulk of Dahl’s story, and the Intrepid’s narrative, is cardboard dull. Scalzi wastes no time on developing a setting for the story, leaving only the barest of hints from which to extrapolate a setting. I don’t think this is a problem with the one-off book format, however, as I have read plenty of one-off books and short stories whose environments are brought vividly to life. "Childhood’s End" and "Imperial Earth" (Arthur C. Clarke) come quickly to mind as two examples. As I read, my mind rebelled against using established Star Trek visuals to populate the setting. While the story is obviously a tongue-in-cheek take on the space opera, it doesn’t give any credible clues towards looking Trek-like. It leaves one with the impression of a poorly-designed stage play or, worse, a stage play with no sets at all. This largely pushes the focus onto the characters, which is good, but it does so at the expense of emphasizing the reality of the mission of the Intrepid, which doesn’t serve the overall story well.

The OC trio’s story, by contrast, is far easier to visualize, and thus has a far deeper potential hook to compel the reader. Mentions of P.F. Chang’s, TMZ, and a Verizon store seem somewhat out of place in most space-operas, but, then again, “Redshirts” isn’t ultimately about the space-opera… is it?

Concluding the main narrative, I was left feeling very flat. Given what I had read about Scalzi’s work, and given the advance praise for the book, I frankly felt cheated. “Redshirts” is funny, but – with all due respect to Joe Hill, not ‘ruin-your-underwear funny’; and I fail to see how it reassembles the Star Trek universe in a more plausible fashion. If that’s what you are looking for, which is what I expected going into the book, then “Redshirts” is an utter disappointment. (Perhaps the Wil Wheaton read audio version would enhance the humor?) But I don’t think that’s what “Redshirts” is really about… or what ultimately makes the story worth reading.

“Redshirts” is, I think, about the interconnectedness of all things. If you let it, the book explores some pretty deep questions about the way we relate to the universe around us, which gives the story a chance to really engage the reader. For me it was not the bulk of the story, but the three codas which follow the main body which carried the most weight, and the most enjoyment… three codas which really speak to the way the universe at large can alter our paths, even today.

To be clear, there is no room for a “Redshirts II”… “Redshirts” brings itself to a satisfying enough conclusion. Just remember, as you read, that someplace, someone, somewhere in the timeline is wearing a red shirt… and their horrible death by ice shark can shake the fabric of the universe, all the way to the Bangs.

"Redshirts" is available now in Hardcover, Kindle and Audible Audiobook (read by Wil Wheaton).  You can read an excerpt at Tor.com.

 

Tor Books provided TrekMovie with a review copy for this article.

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