Redshirts, by John Scalzi

Tor was kind enough to send me a review copy of John Scalzi‘s latest book Redshirts [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy]. This is one of those really annoying books that made me go, “Dang it, why didn’t I think of that??!!” I started my career writing fantasy from the point of view of the underdog monsters. Scalzi has done something similar, writing science fiction from the perspective of the expendable crew members who die in various horrible but dramatically appropriate ways every week.

That created a problem for me as a reader, because I started thinking about how I would have written the story. By the time I actually started reading, the story in my head crashed pretty hard into the story Scalzi had written.

Like everything I’ve read from John Scalzi, this is a quick-paced book with plenty of action. smart-ass dialogue, and humor. Ensign Andrew Dahl is the newest crewmember on the Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union. The rest of the crew, familiar with the redshirt phenomenon, have learned to avoid away missions at all costs. As Dahl realizes what’s happening – and his likely fate – he has to figure out why it’s happening (with the help of a mysterious yeti-haired recluse named Jenkins) and come up with a way to stop it.





Scalzi’s approach doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as it creates a neutrino tunnel through the fourth wall and reverses the polarity to blow it all to hell. Then at the end, he kicks a hole in the fifth wall for good measure. What Dahl discovers is that he and his fellow crewmembers are literally characters in a TV show. They even pull up old episodes of Star Trek for comparison, which gets rather meta, as some of the away missions seem rather similar to various bits from Star Trek.

Even worse, as Jenkins points out, it’s not just that they’re on a TV show; they’re on a badly written TV show. Having figured this out, their only hope is to go back in time and convince the writers to stop killing everyone.

As I read, I found myself thinking about “Visit to a Weird Planet,” a story by Jean Lorrah and Willard F. Hunt that has Kirk, Spock, and Bones transported back to Earth to meet the cast/producers of Star Trek. There were several follow-up tales by various authors.

As a matter of personal taste, this wasn’t the direction I wanted the book to go. I wanted an in-universe approach and explanation to the redshirt phenomenon. But that’s not a flaw of this book, and I can’t blame the author for not writing the story I wanted.

Once I get past that and accept that Scalzi was writing the story he wanted to tell, I think it works fairly well. You can tell he was having a lot of fun. I was particularly amused by the line “Jer is a dick,” a playful reference to a fairly well-known person in Michigan fandom. (I have no doubt that Jer laughed his ass off when he learned about this.) I saw the ending coming the moment we were told the producer’s son had been in an accident, though.

I think the best part of the book is what comes after the ending. There are three short, connected codas at the end, and while they’re good stories in and of themselves, I like that they address questions that could have so easily been left alone. The main story was fun, but the follow-up makes you stop and think about it a little more deeply.

As an author, I also appreciated is how the book addresses writing as a craft: the responsibilities of the writer, the obligation to write thoughtfully and well. The problem isn’t that characters die; it’s that they die for no real reason save the writer’s own laziness. The second coda brings this point home, but it’s there in the rest of the book as well.

I don’t think this is Scalzi’s best book, and I didn’t find it as laugh-out-loud funny as some reviewers, but it was an entertaining look at some of our favorite SF shows.

For those of you who’ve read it, what did you think?