When my friends and I watch or discuss Star Trek, someone will almost always say in their best Shatner impersonation, “Spock – you, me, McCoy, Rabinowitz. We’re heading down to the planet.” Can you guess who’s not coming back?
Of course, it’s Rabinowitz that’s going to meet an untimely-but-plot-point-providing death down on the planet. Almost invariably, the sacrificial lamb wore a redshirt. This became so common over the run of the series that in all across science fiction, minor characters that are mostly plot-fodder are known as “redshirts”.
This conceit is at the center of John Scalzi’s latest novel, appropriately entitled “Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas”. In it, Andrew Dahl is a young ensign assigned to the Universal Union’s flagship starship, the Intrepid. There, he quickly learns that the crew works VERY hard not to be assigned away missions with any of the senior crew, who are all caricatures of the Enterprise’s bridge team.
Dahl enlists his friends to find out what’s going on board the Intrepid. There is a great deal of foul-mouthed, inside-joke-laden banter at the expense of the Roddenberry universe, which is fun – although it’s not so fun for Dahl who watches several of his shipmates die in horrible and unlikely scenarios.
Later on, the book turns very meta – breaking down the Fourth Wall during Dahl’s search for meaning and the goal of an “unscripted” life. This is dangerous territory for any author or filmmaker – I can think of the film Stranger Than Fiction pulling it off pretty well, King’s Dark Tower series almost jumping the shark with it, and some films like The Last Action Hero being torpedoed by it.
For Scalzi and Redshirts, the result is a bit of a mixed bag as he attempts an admittedly difficult pivot from wry and cynical genre-bashing humor to the existential dilemmas of writers, actors, and characters. I have to admit that I kept catching an underlying look-how-clever-I-am vibe that kept me from completely embracing this book.
This is going to be the type of book that a lot of people are going to adore. In the end, this book isn’t going to change anyone’s life, but certainly for science fiction aficionados, I thought it was a quick, fun poke one of the genre’s more timeless tropes.
Three solid stars out of five.