Monday, 11 June 2012

Book Review | Redshirts by John Scalzi

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Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, and Andrew is thrilled all the more to be assigned to the ship’s Xenobiology laboratory.

Life couldn’t be better... until Andrew begins to pick up on the fact that (1) every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces, (2) the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations, and (3) at least one low-ranked crew member is, sadly, always killed.

Not surprisingly, a great deal of energy below decks is expended on avoiding, at all costs, being assigned to an Away Mission. Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the Starship Intrepid really is... and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.


Now don't get me wrong: growing up, I adored Star Trek. Every week for years, come hell or high water, I would watch repeats of The Next Generation, and a little later, when Deep Space Nine and Voyager were on air, my fandom went further. I spent a truly terrifying amount of money collecting a magazine called the Star Trek Fact Files, and on the rare occasions I had pocket change to spare, I would buy the books, too.

Even then, though, at the height of my fondness for all things Federation: an emerging awareness that Star Trek was... well. Far from perfect, to put it politely. If I were feeling less forgiving, I'd say it was pretty terrible at times. What with the bad writing, the clumsy characters and the awful effects; the mad science, the tired old tropes and an overabundance of filler. The failings of the episodic formula Star Trek rarely strayed from were many and various... and yet.

And yet, I'll buy the Blu-rays. I'll go to the cinema to see the rebooted movies. Then, whenever some nugget of not-news comes along to suggest there might be another weekly series in the offing, I get all kinds of excited. It's not just nostalgia... but it's that, for a start.

Redshirts, by John Scalzi, is probably smarter than Star Trek's ever been. It's certainly funnier, and markedly more self-aware:
It was a great story. It was great drama.

And it all rested upon him. And this moment. And this fate. This destiny of Ensign Davis.

Ensign Davis thought, Screw this, I want to live, and swerved to avoid the land worms.

But then he tripped and one of the land worms ate his face and he died anyway. (p.14)
Finally, for the moment, Redshirts is in every sense a product of the postmodern era, whereas its inspiration - in all its incarnations - was rather a throwback from the first.

The plot is difficult to talk about beyond what occurs in the blurb, but suffice it to say that the captain and his recurring crew are not, as Scalzi has it, our central characters. Instead, an assortment of Ensigns rule this roost—or should I say roast? In any event, we have Dahl, Duvall, Finn, Hester and Hanson, and for a fair while, it's tough to tell them all apart. I dare say Scalzi might be making a joke even here, but the lack of differentiation between Ensigns A through E is a legitimate issue in the early-going: it makes it hard to give a hoot when one or another of them meets a meaningless end, as per the manifest destiny of all the Redshirts riding the Starship Intrepid.

Luckily, this grim thinning leaves the reader with a more manageable cast of characters, and the initially pedestrian plot soon takes a fascinating recursive turn. By way of a planet of unlikely Ice Sharks, death by exploding head, and an incursion into the underbelly of the Dub U's most famous flagship, Scalzi finally takes our impromptu away team back in time, the better to finesse his familiar universe's very fabric. To admit any more of The Narrative than that would be to give the game away—but make no mistake: it's a great game.

The most remarkable thing about Redshirts, however, isn't its onionskin story, or its smart, snappy dialogue. Scalzi's witty exposition is winning, yes, and his observation-based sense of humour comes across as incisive as ever, if not quite cutting—and thanks be for that. But these aspects, each and every one, seem secondary to a far greater motivation, for the most remarkable thing about Redshirts is its honest-to-God warmth. This is a genuinely joyous celebration of a subject near and dear to almost all our hearts, and though it is not uncritical of the weekly TV series it spoofs, Scalzi's love of Star Trek - not to mention Stargate, Blake's 7, Babylon 5 and the original Battlestar Galactica - shines through, and brightly, at every stage.

Redshirts, then, is that rare thing: a story you wish wouldn't end. Alas, it does. Several times. In quick succession. Because following the conclusion of the novel proper, three codas - sidestories of a sort - which feel, I fear, awfully unnecessary. Attempts, one suspects, to fatten up what is otherwise a very slim volume. At a push, Redshirts represents two or three hours of reading, and come the conclusion - the first one, that is - you'll want more. Much more... if not of what Scalzi has in store.

Still, if you're anything like me, you'll be glad of what little of it there is. If you have any affection at all for Star Trek and its ilk, you're going to love Redshirts, at least for as long as it lasts.

Now let's take a lesson from the text in question and end on an aside: the reason I haven't mentioned Old Man's War or Fuzzy Nation or Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded is because, for some reason - and more's the pity, methinks - I haven't yet read Old Man's War or Fuzzy Nation or Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded. If, however, Redshirts is in the least indicative of this author's output... then beam me up, Scalzi!

(I know, I know... but this is what I've had to resort to, because Joe Hill, the Borgovian Land Worm that he is, nabbed all the best puns already. "Read on and prosper," indeed.)


by John Scalzi

UK Publication: November 2012, Gollancz
US Publication: June 2012, Tor

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  1. Nice review Niall - I'm going to be starting this one next.

    And I'd definitely recommend getting to his other works. While his Old Man's War series is probably his best known - and all excellent - I'd say go for Fuzzy Nation. I loved that book :)

  2. I have a copy, actually...

    And I did mostly adore Redshirts...

    Plus, I'm considering taking some time off shortly, so... sure. Fuzzy Nation here I come!

  3. Good to hear Niall, it's MUCH better than Redshirts, which I've now mostly read (got 2 codas left). Despite enjoying it when reading it, the more I think about Redshirts the less I like it - I just feel that it was such a good premise that fell flat :-/

  4. The book has a heavy dose of something one might call "metafiction"--the book acknowledging itself. Rest assured that Scalzi handles it decently. He doesn't insult the reader or disappear up his own backside.

    Beyond that, it's imbued with a lot of the melancholy that lurks under Scalzi's other books (that, indeed, sometimes turns to sentimentality in those books). But it also lacks the propulsive, overwhelming narrative that had readers of his earlier books strapping on seatbelts.

    I think this book is a meditation on what meaning we can take from our lives given that--if we're lucky--we live in a universe merely governed by absurd random chance. Scalzi's answer isn't amazingly original. It, too, will seem strangely familiar. But the journey is entertaining, and, as always, Scalzi ultimately respects his readers.

  5. I'm torn on this book. It has his usual fast paced feel to it, but it lacked the emotional kick that all his other books seem to have. Still a good book though. I actually was laughing out loud during many scenes in this book.