Book Review: Redshirts, by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If there’s one thing I appreciate in a writer (or any creative type), it’s a determined resistance to being one-dimensional. Given the basic idea of this book, Scalzi could have simply done a tap dance on the foibles of sci-fi television, and, I’ve no doubt, he would have made it entertaining fare. Shoot, look at Night of the Living Trekkies by Kevin David Anderson & Sam Stall. That’s no thinking man’s book, but I’ve read it four times already. Instead, what Scalzi’s done here is to take the notion of the Redshirt and invert it. In other words, he’s made them human.
The Redshirt phenomenon, for the uninitiated, comes from Star Trek. In the T.V. show, the lowest ranking crew members always seemed to wear red uniforms and always seemed to be on the business end of a gruesome death. The main characters would escape largely unscathed, with only a passing look of thoughtful regret to mark the loss of some poor ensign. Although, curiously, Captain Picard wore a red uniform. Explain that one, Trekkies! Huh? I don’t recall him getting eaten by some weird space monkey! But I digress.
So, in this book, the main characters are not on the U.S.S. Enterprise, but rather the Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union. Now, granted, there’s a lot similarity between the two, and Scalzi crafts some pretty funny sections which take the mickey out of Star Trek and other shows (especially toward the beginning). Ultimately though, the author pushes the novel’s basic premise, life on a starship from a Redshirt’s point of view, into thought-provoking territory. As it progresses, the book spends as much time considering the nature of self-determination as it does the culture of Hollywood. As he has done elsewhere, Scalzi balances fun and philosophy in a finely-paced story. From a craft perspective, I was a little surprised, and maybe a bit put off, by the three Codas at the end. They provide expanded looks for some of the story’s secondary characters in a narrative style which is a significant departure from the novel. That said, the more I read, the more intrigued I became. They added a depth of emotion and perspective which both suited the book’s themes and made it a more complete story.
Although I’ve watched various Star Trek shows in fits and starts, I am a long way from calling myself a fan. There are whole swaths of the mythos which I don’t know or care to understand. None of that affected my enjoyment a bit. As long as you’ve heard of Star Trek (and now that you’ve read this review, you have), you can count on the author to take care of the rest.