Redshirts

by John Scalzi

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: June 2012
ISBN: 1-4299-6360-3
Format: Kindle
Pages: 317

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The next few reviews deserve a small apology in advance. Normally, I try to write reviews within a few weeks, or at most a month, after reading a book, while it's still fresh in my mind. This is particularly important since I read a lot and sometimes don't have a good memory for specific detail. But this summer has made it completely impossible to keep to any sort of regular writing schedule. As a result, this book, and the subjects of the next few reviews that follow, are books that I read four months ago and am reviewing from memory. Hopefully, I'll still get the details right.

Ensign Andrew Dahl is one of the newest crew members of the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid. It's his first posting, just out of the Academy. He's one of five new ensigns, expecting a normal tour of duty (albeit with the pride of being on a capital ship of the fleet). But very shortly after arriving on the ship, Andrew and and the other new ensigns discover that something is very... strange. The casualty rate on the ship is surprisingly high (as foreshadowed in a prologue). The other crew members avoid the bridge crew, and particularly away missions, with startling effectiveness (and desperation). And things regularly happen on the ship that, for lack of a better description, simply make no sense.

Redshirts starts off as a very obvious Star Trek parody. So obvious, in fact, that it's eyeroll-inducing. The prologue reads exactly like a section of a Star Trek episode written by a third-rate hack, leavened with some of the humor that readers of Scalzi's blog have come to expect. But it's obvious that Scalzi is doing this intentionally, and it doesn't take long before the subject of the book shifts. It's a Star Trek parody that functions much more like a Star Trek parody than any universe should, to the degree that it becomes obvious to the characters. And the characters, despite being straight from central casting, are clearly not expecting their universe to act that way and find this extremely strange.

By far the best part of this book is the second quarter: the characters have been introduced, they're starting to figure out what's going on, and they have to do so while dodging away-team duty (or trying to survive it) and participating in the ridiculous plot contrivances that keep occurring. Scalzi mixes a feeling of serious consequences with wry humor and handles the mix deftly. I was both laughing and eagerly reading to see what comes next.

The last half of the book, though, has problems. How many problems the reader perceives will, I think, depend on how hard one thinks about the situation Scalzi has set up, or how much one has thought about similar constructs in the past. But I'm afraid the setup does not survive serious scrutiny in ways that, for me at least, seriously damaged my ability to engage with the story.

I'm going to avoid saying explicitly where Scalzi goes with this plot, since it is a spoiler (although it's commonly mentioned in discussions of this book on the Internet). But it happens to be an idea that some friends of mine and I pounded on for years in some of our role-playing scenarios, poking at the corners and implications, and subsequently gave up on because it doesn't work for storytelling. The idea is compelling, and on first glance seems like a great story seed. But it's too large. The problem with really big ideas with huge implications is that they can change the nature of a story so much that there's no longer any point of commonality for the reader and the entire nature of story falls apart. And I think that's what happens here.

Scalzi handles the deeper implications of the concept by, essentially, ignoring them. He focuses on one narrow set of implications for one specific set of people, largely skips over any discussion of anything larger, and tries a pivot from wry humor (and a bit of slapstick) into serious emotional depth. For me, in part because I'm so familiar with the concept, none of this really worked. The implications of the discovery that drives this story are so much broader and so much more significant than the characters seem to admit that it threw me right out of the story. The ethical implications are absolutely paralyzing, to the point that I don't think you can write a coherent story about them, but ignoring them doesn't work either. It's the kind of discovery that requires action of some kind beyond the attempt by the characters to go back to what they consider a normal life, even if I have a hard time imagining what that action could be.

To be fair, he does try to salvage this in the first epilogue, which is all about the implications of his idea and its effects. But it's still too small. That epilogue just barely touches on the implications on a single person, but if one thinks a bit longer, one starts coming up with more and more implications for all of society, for how we talk about story, for how we raise children, for nearly every form of creativity. Implications that involve nasty concepts like slavery and mind control and murder and the nature of consent in ways that are very difficult to avoid.

I think Scalzi's attempts at serious emotional connection, including in the other two attached epilogues (which are perspective-shifting close focuses on some of the characters), also suffer from his world setup, but in a different way. The characters are simply too bland to sustain the level of emotional connection he's striving for. They're bland for a very specific reason that is entirely justified by the story that Scalzi is handling, and the implications of that for the primary protagonist were, I thought, one of the best-handled moments of the book. But they're still bland, which undermines the attempted pivot.

All that being said, this is not a bad book. Parts of it, particularly the second quarter, are excellent. And even when I wasn't engaging with the characters, Scalzi's writing on a paragraph level is snappy and often quite funny. The first epilogue in particular is hilarious, even if I think it was too limited in the scope of implications that it considers and a bit too meta in where it goes with those implications. And the story is a fun romp, with drama and humor and tension and a fairly satisfying ending. Everyone's a bit too bland and earnest when Scalzi isn't being funny, but he's funny enough that I didn't mind that much.

Despite the relatively low rating, I actually recommend this book. If you don't dive into the metaphysical implications, it's a lot of fun, and if you've thought a lot about this particular set of metaphysical implications, it's somewhat satisfying to argue with (and to internally point out all of the hard questions that Scalzi is skipping over). It's particularly fun if you've watched a lot of Star Trek, since Scalzi gets some of the absurdities note-perfect. But be aware that the character reactions to Scalzi's concept don't hold up to much scrutiny.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-08-31

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21