Redshirts by John Scalzi
Redshirts doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as methodically take it apart brick by brick, and then destroy those bricks so that wall can never be put up again. What starts as an entertaining Star Trek parody turns into a head scratching study of the entire notion of creativity and the relationship between fictional characters and their creators, which doesn’t always quite work but always impresses in its ambition.
Many science fiction fans will have heard of the Redshirts concept; in the original Star Trek, minor characters who essentially existed to be killed off to add tension or angst for the main characters usually wore red shirts, and it has become something of a joke that anyone wearing a red shirt in Star Trek is doomed. Although it is obviously this that Redshirts is parodying, and Star Trek in general, a knowledge of Star Trek really isn’t that important. To my shame, my experience with Star Trek barely extends beyond the J.J Abrams movies and a handful of episodes of The Next Generation, but I don’t think I missed much in Redshirts, and as the novel goes on it becomes less and less about Star Trek as about fiction in general.
Ensign Andrew Dahl has been assigned to Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union, a human galactic empire hundreds of years in the future. It’s not long before he notices a strange pattern, that the death rates for away missions on the Intrepid outstrips that of any other ship, and that proximity to a handful of leading figures, such as Captain Abernathy or Chief Scientist Officer Q’eeng, massively raises the chances of death. Dahl, and a group of fellow underlings, decide to root out the cause of this mystery and save themselves from their seemingly inevitable deaths.
Although the opening chapters are enjoyable and goofy, things get really interesting about 100 pages in. It’s really hard to explain what I loved about this book without spoiling it, but let’s just say that Redshirts is far from afraid to extend beyond being a simple Star Trek parody. I wasn’t sure about the left field turn this novel takes at first, but as I read I began to understand what Scalzi was going for, and it all slotted together. It’s a slightly uneven book, and at seems at times that even Scalzi himself wasn’t quite prepared for the turn this novel takes, and is winging it slightly, but it all helps make Redshirts so much more interesting than it would have been otherwise.
This is the first novel that I’ve read by Scalzi, but I’m certainly intrigued enough to consider coming back for more. The dialogue is refreshingly naturalistic, and Scalzi is able to show us the distinction between the style of language often seen in science fiction and the way people actually speak. It’s funny too, laugh out loud funny, and if you wanted to the first couple of hundred pages could function as a perfectly good comedy. Redshirts gets less and less funny as it goes on, but it’s replaced with a real humanity and charm. There are some scenes here which are genuinely really moving, almost tear-jerkingly so, but they don’t feel out of synch with rest of the novel due to the gradual shift in tone.
Dahl is an entertainingly droll protagonist, but overall the cast are slightly underwhelming. Although lots of them are likeable, they all feel slightly flat, but I do wonder if that was the point, and whether Scalzi’s playing some kind of post-modern game with us. It’s not so much the characters that make this book, but what it has to say about the act of writing itself.
It’s difficult to really sell Redshirts without giving too much away, but I really recommend giving it a go, even if you’re not a Star Trek fan. It’s a really interesting book, which doesn’t always succeed, but is nonetheless utterly original and unlike anything else I’ve read.