Book Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

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.

Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas, by John Scalzi

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.

Redshirt

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.

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19 thoughts on “Book Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

  1. I think I’d give it 4 out 5, mostly because I really liked what he did in the codas. And I’ll admit it- I enjoyed some of the nods to the big philosophers. And it was still good fun!

  2. I like Scalzi but I don’t know if I am a big enough fan of the trek universe to really enjoy the humor. Is it at a level of Galaxy Quest or do I need much more trek knowledge.

    • The Galaxy Quest comparison is an interesting one. It’s smarter than GQ, I think — and no, you don’t need any more than the most rudimentary Trek base to get it.

  3. Interesting…I’m a massive ST fan (bored by SW, go figure–ST is the ‘verse I want to be in; I love Firefly but that ain’t my neighborhood of choice). I thought this would be something I wouldn’t have the … open-mindedness to enjoy but hearing it breaks the 4th wall is a hook!

  4. I have to admit I snickered at your description of the plot. I used to point out to my kids that trope of the ensign on the ‘way team who gets zapped, mauled, or piked by the hostile locals. They in turn would point it out to their friends, which made them look so worldly (or smart-alecky) to their peers.

    It is interesting to see an author examine Star Trek in a postmodern, literary manner. Science fiction, whether on TV or in books, is generally treated by literary critics as a joke or as genre writing: so I’m glad when someone like Scalzi plays around with an archetype, especially one as loved as Star Trek. I don’t know if I would enjoy an ironic-hipster “I’m so outside of this” treatment of my favorite sci-fi series, however.

    • HG — There’s a fair bit of existential philosophy thrown in here as well, which makes it a surprisingly rich read for something that has such snark-humor potential. It was funny to hear reports from this past weekend’s Comic-Con here in San Diego about all the university profs who give lectures about essentially pop-culture philosophy and society. Clearly, there’s a place wave of enthusiasm to probe why we like and identify with SF and fantasy so much — it would probably help if people weren’t dressed like super-heroes in the audience.

  5. I’ve been so tempted to pick this one up, but wondered if it would cross the meta line into “too much” territory. Have you read “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline? I read the first few pages in the bookstore and had to put it down. Too much. I so wanted to love it, but it felt like it was trying to hard. My reading time is so limited these days, that I want to be blown away by a book if I commit to the time. Snob. I know. :)

    • Amy — I think for me, it was an expectations-game. I’d heard nothing but “this is so great!” type reviews that I was very keen to really get into it. And I didn’t love it, I liked it — and so it feels a bit like a letdown. If I’d gone in with no expectations, I’d probably be a little more upbeat about it.

      I have read Ready Player One — actually I listened to the audiobook — and I ended up really enjoying it. It hooked me because the first chapter mentions Adventure — an Atari game that I was totally hooked on some — errr — 30 years ago.

  6. Dan really enjoyed this book, and I’ll probably pick it up when I’m in the mood for something like this. It’s interesting that he got somewhat philosophical in this novel, as I expected it to just be a light poke at Star Trek kind of read.

  7. Thanks for the review! I don’t mind short reads like this, sometimes. But I agree, the nebulous has to be done masterfully or else it just flops. The best plots are one simple clever idea with some dynamic offshoots. End.

    • Amelie — it’s a good “palate-cleanser” sort of book. It’s not long enough that you get really bogged down in any of its smaller shortcomings.

  8. Pingback: Flickbuddies: I’ll Be Stalking You | Stevil

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