Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Redshirts by John Scalzi

I actually bought Redshirts not that long after it came out, long before it was nominated for a Hugo. It went on the TBR pile. The Hugo nomination and my determination to at least read all the novels to make a better informed vote bumped it up the pile a little.

Redshirts is actually my second Scalzi novel. I read his online debut Agent to the Stars a few years ago. I have Fuzzy Nation somewhere on Mt Toberead, but just haven't gotten around to it.

Having now only read two fairly light books by Mr Scalzi I've probably got the wrong impression of him as a writer. He's better know for more serious work like Old Man's War.

Redshirts does in some ways have things in common with Agent to the Stars, both deal with the entertainment industry and both poke fun at certain things about the industry. They're also both light, comedic science fiction books.

The title of Redshirts is a reference to the science fiction TV theory that the characters wearing red shirts are expendable extras who get eaten by aliens, shot, blown up, contract incurable alien diseases, etc... For those who don't know, the term comes from Star Trek (as do many science fictional TV terms) in that it was generally those wearing the red uniform that bit the dust.

There's a belief that you need to be very familiar with Star Trek to get all the jokes. I don't think this is the case. I have only a passing knowledge of Star Trek, and maybe I didn't get all the references, but I certainly got enough of them to have a good laugh while reading Redshirts.

The story follows ensign Andrew Dahl and his fellows on board the starship Intrepid for most of the book. Dahl soon realises that weird things happen. People die in the oddest ways, yet none of the senior officers like the captain or his second in command or the engineer seem to be affected, despite often being in the firing line. The only ranking officer that ever seems to be in danger is Kerensky and as he's an astrogator why is he even on most of these off ship missions? Then there's the way Kerensky never actually dies or even shows ill effects once he miraculously survives. A lot of what they do onboard doesn't make any sense and too much is fixed by the 'magic box'. A strange hairy character known only as Jenkins is also on board and spends his time hiding in between decks.

Eventually Dahl, along with his friends and with the help of Jenkins work out that they're extras on a cable science fiction show and the only way they can save their own lives is to somehow affect the show in a meaningful way.

Once this has been figured out the story really becomes very very funny. There's a lot of laugh out loud moments throughout this. Most of the book is very meta, although it doesn't really break the fourth wall until the first Coda (there are 3 of them, written in first, second and third person). I do confess that whole reading it I wondered why no one had ever written something like this in quite the way Scalzi did. I suspect his time writing for Stargate Universe had more than a little to do with the idea for writing Redshirts.

The first two thirds of Redshirts are a hoot. I wish the book had finished there. The Codas form the last 100 or so pages and they didn't work for me. I appreciate how hard and clever it was to write them in first, second (especially second) and third person, but it was just too much and I felt unnecessary.

The first one is done in blog form and it does read almost like posts from Scalzi's popular blog Whatever. For me the gimmick got old quickly and I was hoping it ended sooner than it did.

Overall the book is a lot of fun and for most of it's length it very successfully gently mocks the very genre that spawned it. The last third lets it down a little for mine. If you like your science fiction funny and you enjoy watching it on TV then you'll get a kick out of Redshirts.


  1. I've just finished this, also in an effort to get ahead with the Hugo reading.

    I laughed through most of it, appreciated the inherent absurdity of the "redshirts". Even when they don't actually wear the colour red, they're still refered to in that way.

    Like you, I felt the first coda just went on Forever... It was amusing to start with, and then it just got a bit tedious. Writing second person is highly unusual, so it was interesting to see the second coda done that way.

    All-in-all, I enjoyed it, and while it's not my favourite of the Hugo noms read so far, I would still read it again (when I have time and have scaled the rest of the Mt TBR...)

  2. It was a clever idea, still can't believe no one has done it before, and I enjoyed it, but just felt it lacked a little something in the final washup.

  3. Wow. This books sounds pretty special. Tears, laughter, what more can you ask for.