Sunday, July 21, 2013

Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

Redshirts : A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi
Published : Tor, 2012
Awards Won : Locus SF Award, Hugo Award

The Book :

”Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, and Andrew is thrilled all the more to be assigned to the ship’s Xenobiology laboratory.

Life couldn’t be better…until Andrew begins to pick up on the fact that (1) every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces, (2) the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations, and (3) at least one low-ranked crew member is, sadly, always killed.

Not surprisingly, a great deal of energy below decks is expended on avoiding, at all costs, being assigned to an Away Mission. Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is…and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.”

This is only the second novel I’ve read by John Scalzi, though I intend to finish the Old Man’s War series at some point.  I’m reading this novel in an attempt to get through the Hugo nominees before the end of the voting period (KSR’s 2312 is still looming—I may not get that one finished in time).

My Thoughts :

The entirety of Redshirts is basically a long-running meta-fictional joke.  The title takes its name from a trope of the original Star Trek series, in which red-shirted, nameless extras were constantly killed off, usually to further a protagonist’s plot or to show the severity of a situation. These redshirts, who come into this status after their transfer to the Intrepid, are the heroes of Scalzi’s novel. They have to work together to figure out why their lives are suddenly being manipulated (and destroyed), by what seems to be a crappy Star Trek knock-off science fiction television show.  This resulted in a lot of really hilarious situational humor, as they try to use the nonsensical TV logic to their benefit.  While I did enjoy the humor, I think the story might have worked better in a shorter form of fiction.  Redshirts isn’t a long book, but the joke was already wearing a bit thin by the end.

The style of the book was also very bland, in a way that I think was intended to be a comedic take on bad science fiction.  The sentences were usually short and non-descriptive, and the story was dominated by dialogue.  The characters all had pretty similar, forgettable names (Hanson, Hester, Dahl, Duvall, Finn, etc.), and just about every line dialogue seemed tagged with “<name/pronoun> said”.  This worked well for a lot of the humor, giving the dialogue kind of a deadpan feeling, but it also became very repetitive quite quickly.  I think there is a thin line between writing deliberately badly in a parodic way, and just writing badly. I still found the story funny and entertaining, but I could see it going the other way for other readers. 

As story moves more into the meta-fictional realm, it begins to try to become a more serious kind of story.  I felt like this was a bit undercut by the writing style and the continuous jokes, but it was interesting to see how relatively normal people would react to this kind of an absurd situation.  For instance, one character comments about religious faith: 

 I mean, you know and I know that in this universe, god is a hack,” he said.  “He’s a writer on an awful science fiction television show, and He can’t plot His way out of a box.  How do you have faith when you know that?” ~p.96

There is some interesting discussion about free will, and whether one can have a meaningful life without it. The story actually draws together to a surprisingly serious conclusion for such a tongue-in-cheek novel.  The three codas don’t seem especially necessary, but it was neat to see more of how the events of the story might affect “real” people.  I enjoyed the humor more than anything else in Redshirts, but I was pretty satisfied by the way the story ended.

My Rating : 3.5/5

Redshirts, as a joke story based on a Star Trek trope, is a fast, light, humorous novel to read.  It isn’t very long, but I kind of got the feeling that the joke might have been better suited to shorter fiction.  The writing is very choppy, simplistic, and dominated by dialogue.  While this style often underlines the absurd humor nicely, it also gets old after a while.  As the meta-fictional elements became more dominant, the story took some surprisingly serious turns (given the ridiculous premise).  I can see how this is a novel that will not be to everyone’s tastes, I got a lot of laughs from its funnier moments.


  1. I really had high hopes, and while Redshirts is a very quick and easy read, ultimately it is only mildly amusing. It does not feel like Scalzi put as much focus as he has with his other novels. Redshirts is a respectful nod to Star Trek, but it constantly separated itself from any Star Trek kind of atmosphere with the often unnecessary and excessive swearing. Despite that, I welcomed the absurdity of the story's twist, which handily added to the attempted humor of the story, but it is still that same story that ultimately fails to deliver. Compared to Scalzi's other works, it is pretty easy to recognize why Redshirts falls short with the story, characters and humor.

    Marlene Detierro (Sell Gold)

    1. Thanks for your comment! Yeah, comparing "Redshirts" with "Old Man's War", I can see what you mean about him not putting as much focus on this one. I figured the swearing was to make the redshirts seem more like "real people," but I think most real people don't curse quite that much!