It’s a familiar meme: don’t wear a red shirt on the deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise; if you do, you’re likely to be killed before the first commercial break.
This not-so-inside Trekkie joke became the basis for novel of the same name by John Scalzi. Heck, there’s even a Redshirt song by Jonathan Coulton (of Code Monkey fame; speaking of which, there’s a graphic novel Kickstarter project and a related album of Coulton’s – about which more here). Clearly, Mr. Scalzi is jumping onto a fairly main-stream meme (hey, even I heard about it).
So, I hunkered down, ready for some inside Trekkie references and some serious fun. Redshirts does not disappoint on that score. It begins as expected with funny, light banter about junior officer life in space and fodder for various life forms they encounter; away missions and survival tend to be mutually exclusive for the junior officers. Soon, however, it dives a bit deeper – the senior officers go from normal to cliché in 7.6 seconds and then, flip back. Even Star Fleet officers typically don’t do that. You get the picture; to say more, I’ll need to leak some of the story. Before I continue on to the spoiler version of the review below, let me say a few things I’ll attempt to substantiate below:
- Mr. Scalzi does a good job building the relationships and defining the characters in the first half of the book. Those characters grow considerably in the second half of the book.
- Speaking of the second part of the book, a relatively surprising shift takes place that moves the dialog onto a bit more speculative and less comical ground.
- The three Codas at the end of the book are a non-trivial addition; they address some intriguing and often overlooked issues and perspectives. Do not blow by these. My view is that they take a really good book to the next level of excellence.
- I believe that you could enjoy the book without being a Star Trek (or even SciFi) fan. Most who read it will be both, but it’s not necessary to lock in.
- I went between listening to the Audible book, ably read by Will Wheaton of Wesley Crusher fame on Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) and the Kindle edition. Mr. Wheaton is able to convey both the humor, the action and the issues equally well. (If you don’t already, follow him on Twitter @wilw. He’s both funny and has some interesting insights; mostly funny.)
- My one disappointment: while I understand that Mr. Scalzi is reflecting military life (and that this isn’t his father’s Star Trek), the language was overly foul. All that needed to be accomplished could have been done so with brief forays into foul language land, instead, we move in and occupy it.
It turns out that our intrepid crew, yes pun intended, of the U.U. Intrepid, were really part of a future show that used Star Trek as its basis; a sort of Star Trek remix. The writers often used cheap dramatic tricks of death, destruction and mayhem to keep their audience interested; the tricks were typically played on the Redshirts. The book goes from mere fun to interesting when the junior officers, led by Ensign Andrew Dahl, figure out that they are part of a show. Now, not only do they know the challenges of going on away missions in red, they are cognitive of the fact that they’re bit players in a show. Mr. Scalzi handles this awareness very well, and he takes it head on. He has Dahl and friends meet the show’s producers; they come into contact with their doppelgängers and attempt to right many wrongs and make the alternate universe safe(r) for democracy. This is adroitly done with no over-long back-story; rather Mr. Scalzi takes you from what you think will be the main, light fun meat of the book and uses it to build the characters and relationships so that, by the time awareness dawns and producers are met, we know the characters, care about them and their relationships and are ready to walk with our new friends in unexpected directions.
The characters now become involved with the lives of the “real world” folks; albeit some involuntarily like Lt. Kerensky and some more intimately like Jasper Hester. I do want you to read it, so I won’t say anything more other than, it works. That’s saying a lot. A character meeting themselves in the real world when they were a bit part the “real” person nearly forgot they played is nearly the embodiment of “awkward”. Yet they meet and move on.
Some of the most interesting parts comes in the codas – what would you do if, as a script writer, you discovered people actually died, in some alternate world, when you killed your characters off? You couldn’t very well continue knocking them off. Now what? You still need tension and story. But wait, what if even angst over this question is covering up a deeper issue. Now, we’re talking. Yes, John Scalzi goes there.
What if your characters meet and, for the first time, you receive “tough love” feedback from someone you can trust, your other self. He goes there too.
Finally, what if the “story” dead spouse of an unhinged husband has a counterpart who drifts because she knows there something else, a sense of loss or missing connection?
All of these are examined in the context of story, not simply self-reflected dialog.
So, while I thought Redshirts would be fun, and it was, it was also thought provoking, had some drama going down and some characters growing up. Well done Mr. Scalzi.