book review

Redshirts (2012) | John Scalzi

Kirk: All right, men, this is a dangerous mission. And it’s likely one of us will be killed. The landing party will consist of myself, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Ensign Ricky.

Ensign Ricky:
Aw, crap.

Family Guy

What’s better than the hilarity of the Red Shirt trope? A book completely deconstructing the hilarity of the Red Shirt trope.

I decided to listen to Redshirts by John Scalzi on Audible, where it’s narrated by Wil Wheaton, after listening to The Dispatcher by the same author. I enjoyed The Dispatcher, which is a novel written specially for Audible and was free to download as part of some promotion, and at some point or another I’ll likely review it too. Needless to say, I enjoyed The Dispatcher so much that I  decided to take a stab at Redshirts.

I was not disappointed. I remember when this book came out in 2012 when I was still working in bookshops. I always meant to read it, but it just somehow kept on getting pushed further and further down my reading list. I was vaguely familiar with the Red Shirt trope; one doesn’t have to be a fan of Star Trek to know what it’s about. The good thing is, one also doesn’t have to be a fan of Star Trek or the Red Shirt trope to appreciate this rather hilarious novel.

Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, the flagship of the UU. It’s a prestige posting and his career couldn’t have gotten a better start – but then he starts to… notice things. Strange things. Things like how every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal encounter with hostile alien forces. Things like how the ship’s Captain, chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Anatoli Kerensky always survive these encounters, and how at least one low-ranked crew member always ends up dead.

The book starts off as an abject parody, and it’s hilarious. Scalzi’s writing is snappy and clever, and if you’re listening to it on Audible, Wil Wheaton does a spectacular job of bringing his bemused, self-aware characters to life. The key to a good parody is to love thing you are parodying, and it’s obvious that Scalzi has a great deal of affection for the camp, ridiculous science fiction shows he’s gently mocking through the eyes of an Extra just trying to live his life on a completely insane ship that’s trying to kill him. If the entire book had just been like this the entire way through, I would have been perfectly happy with it. It would have ultimately been a fun, ridiculous, mildly clever book with some really hilarious moments.

But then Scalzi takes it a step further. Ensign Dahl, in trying to avoid at all costs being assigned to the Bridge (where ensigns always, always die) or being assigned to an Away Mission (where again, ensigns always die), he stumbles across some information about what’s going on. Information that changes everything, and offers him one insane chance to save his life, and the lives of his fellow red shirts ensigns.

This is where the book goes from mildly clever to downright meta and brilliantly analytical. Oh, it’s still completely ridiculous, but it’s smart in the same way that I love the film Stranger Than Fiction starring Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson for being smart. The book stops being an affectionate parody/homage; it becomes a deconstruction.

The book has a strong beginning, a hilarious set-up, and a fantastic middle. But for me, it falls down with the ending. The official name of the book is Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas. If the book had ended just prior to the Codas, it would have been perfect; a tight, ridiculous affectionate parody/deconstruction novel with just enough meta to make it more memorable than your average comedy novel that slips into obscurity after a couple of years. Unfortunately, the Codas drag down the tightness and meta-text out to very long extremes. This isn’t to say the Codas aren’t good; I do like them. It ultimately becomes a very heartfelt, moving novel. I think I just like the Codas better on their own, and not as part of the main story.

Fortunately, however, the Codas aren’t enough to spoil this book from being fantastic. Even if you’re not a fan of Star Trek or other episodic sci-fi television series, anyone with a passing knowledge of the Red Shirt trope will love this. I know I did!

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