Redshirts, by John Scalzi

redshirtsTitle: Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas

Author: Scalzi, John (Author’s Website)

Genre: Science fiction, humor, metafiction

Bibliographic: Tor, 320 pages, Hardcover List Price $24.99, Paperback List Price $15.99, Audiobook List Price $19.99, ISBNs 9780765316998, 9780765334794, 9781410476074, 9781466815414, 9781429963602

Publication Date: June 5, 2012

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ /♥♥♥♥♡ (The rating scale is here).

Appeal Factors: Unconventional story line, dark humor, engaging

Why I picked it up: It’s the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, and I’m always ready for a Star Trek parody.

S.I.A.S.: The crew of the Intrepid realizes that a television show is interfering with their real lives.

Summary: Ensign Andy Dahl, a former seminarian, has been assigned to the xenobiology lab on the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union’s fleet. He is pleased with his assignment at first, but eventually comes to notice that life on the Intrepid is exceedingly strange. His xenobiology colleagues go to great lengths to avoid the ship’s officers, and will do nearly anything to ensure that they never get put onto an away team. The bridge crew seems to heal from injury and recover from sickness miraculously quickly. On almost every away mission, an ensign dies. Most jarringly, the use of technology aboard the ship is scattershot: when faced with a time-sensitive problem that seems unsolvable, they simply place the problem into a black box, which provides an almost-perfect solution just in the nick of time, which must be personally delivered to the bridge.

Dahl and his friends — Ensigns Duvall, Hanson, Finn, and Hester– decide to investigate, which leads them to a crew member by the name of Jenkins, who was driven crazy by the loss of his wife. Nominally, he’s also a member of the xenobiology lab, but he actually lives in the Jeffries Tubes and runs a complicated alert system to inform the other crew members of the whereabouts of the officers. Jenkins has figured out the truth, and it’s a doozy: all of the illogical things on the ship can be blamed on a science fiction TV show from the ancient past (2012, to be exact). The show is called The Chronicles of the Intrepid, and it is basically a bad knockoff of Star Trek. What Jenkins has discovered is that everyone in their universe was a character on the show, and their lives must conform to what the plot says they’ll do. Ensigns are killed to show the danger that the main characters face. One particular officer, Lt. Kerensky, gets injured particularly frequently, routinely returning from death’s door quickly enough to lead the next away mission. The more Dahl and his friends think about it, the more it makes sense — and when one of them is killed, the others decide to travel back in time to ask the screenwriters to be a little less cavalier with their lives.

After the main thrust of the story is over, there are three additional codas. The first is a series of blog posts from The Chronicles of the Intrepid‘s main writer, who has just met his time-traveling characters in the flesh and wants help from the internet in overcoming his resulting writer’s block. The second is the hardest to describe without spoilers, but here goes: it is written in the second person, and deals with the 2012-era aftermath of the events of the main plot, from the point of view of a character who has no voice in the main novel. The final coda follows the actress who played Jenkins’s wife, and how she deals with the discovery that her character existed and had a real impact on the lives around her.

Evaluation:  I have mixed feelings about this book. At moments, it is incredibly funny, in a way that Trekkies will appreciate most but anyone can understand. The plot didn’t really work, but that was okay given the nature of the book: it is making fun of science fiction plots that don’t really work, and the characters openly acknowledge that their actions make no sense and that the ending is a bit of a deus ex machina. The characters are clearly based on science-fiction tropes, but again: this book is designed to make the reader think about what science fiction is, as a genre, and so this is fine; anyone with even a passing familiarity with space opera will recognize the characters and understand why Scalzi chose to write them the way he did, and the characters themselves acknowledge this.

That said, the writing leaves a bit to be desired. Much of the book is dialogue, and it seems as though every line ends with “said:” “Andy said,” “Maia said,” “Hester said,” and so on. Nobody exclaims or replies or shouts or expresses themselves in any other way than saying, which was a little bit excruciating to listen to as an audiobook (although, to be fair, my friends who have read this book in print didn’t notice). Some of the jokes, especially the ones about owing each other sexual favors, are hopelessly overdone.

The codas are highly unusual, but I loved them. I have never seen a book presented in this way before, and Scalzi’s own explanation of why he chose to write the story this way is fascinating. I think the second coda was my favorite part of the book, and was surprised by how philosophical it was: do you need to be given a second chance to transform your life? It’s an old question, but I have never seen it tackled in quite this way. I also greatly enjoyed the third coda, which ends the book on an optimistic note.

The audiobook is narrated by Wil Wheaton, who was an excellent choice. He does a great job with the material (even the many saids), and the fact that he himself was a Star Trek actor adds another layer of fun.

Significance: This book won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2013, and has remained consistently popular since, especially as John Scalzi becomes more well-known outside of sci-fi circles. It also has its own theme song, written by Jonathan Coulton.

Readalikes: Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain, by A. Lee Martinez. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu. Venus on the Half-Shell, by Philip Jose Farmer.

Discussion Questions:

  1. About halfway through the novel, Jenkins informs the Ensigns that their lives are being heavily influenced by a centuries-old television show, on which they were fictional characters. Andy accepts this explanation right away, and immediately starts attributing the events around him to the writers, but the other characters have more difficulty coming to terms with it. Why is Andy  so willing to accept that the Narrative is in charge of his life, and why do the others have such difficulty with it? Do you believe that your life is controlled by outside forces? To what extent?
  2. What would you do if confronted with your doppelganger, in the way that the actors on The Chronicles of the Intrepid were?
  3. What does Redshirts have to say about science fiction, as a genre? Is it a problem that so much scifi relies so heavily on unrealistic outcomes? What does this book say about how science fiction is perceived by those who are not fans?
  4. Did Matthew’s reaction to his newfound knowledge in coda two surprise you? What might you do in that situation? Do you need some sort of cataclysmic event for a new beginning?
  5. Have you ever seen a book presented in this format (i.e., with codas)? Did you find it effective? What other books do you think could benefit from this style?

Lists and Awards: Hugo Award for Best Novel (2013). Locus Award for Best Science Fiction (2013). Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award — Best Science Fiction and Fantasy (2012).

Professional Reviews: Kirkus. Publishers Weekly. New York Times. i09. AV Club.

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