Ensign Andy Dahl is excited to be assigned to the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union fleet. At first. But once he’s on board, he discovers that something unusual is going on. Nobody ever want to go on away missions because at least one low-ranking crew member always dies in horribly gruesome ways (Pulse gun vaporization! Giant sand worms! ICE SHARK!). The long-time crew members have come up with a system to minimize their chances of going on away missions, leaving the steady stream of new recruits to serve as cannon fodder. Well Andy is just not satisfied with this and sets out to discover the truth about the Intrepid. He finds a mysterious crew member who seems to have all the answers and I don’t want to ruin any of the surprise twists, but let’s just say that things get really fucking weird. But really, like Princess Merida, he just wants to change his fate. Though no one turns into a bear. Although considering everything else that happened, I wouldn’t have been surprised if that had happened. Anyway, John Scalzi’s Redshirts (Tor 2012) lovingly sends up Star Trek and those other ridiculous (and not so ridiculous) sci-fi shows that you grew up watching. Or didn’t grow up watching. I don’t know your life.
I’ve been wanting to read a John Scalzi book for awhile. I’m a big fan of his blog because (among many reasons) he gives great, practical advice about the publishing industry. The problem is, I’m not the biggest fan of sci-fi novels. No judgements, it’s just generally not my thing. But when I heard about this book, I knew that Redshirts would be my gateway to the Scalzi canon. For those of you who aren’t total geeks, redshirts is the fandom term for the glorified extras who die horrible deaths in order to raise the stakes for the regular cast members. The name derives from the original Star Trek series where all those doomed bastards wore, you guessed it, red shirts. So from the title alone, I knew that I was in for a good time.
The book itself does not disappoint. It’s well-written, clever, and hilarious, but also has a lot more heart (without being schmaltzy) than I was expecting. And you can tell how much fun Scalzi is having with the story, which I found delightful. The plot is quite often ridiculous and the ending makes very little sense, but since that plays into the larger story being told, I think it works. The three (!) codas are a tad self-indulgent, but since they flesh out some minor characters, I enjoyed them. And beyond the silliness, I think Scalzi plays with ideas about identity and individual autonomy. It makes for a deeper read.
I was able to not only follow along, but to appreciate all the twists, turns, and absurdities of the story, despite the fact that I’ve only seen maybe two episodes of Star Trek. So I don’t think you necessarily need to be a big sci-fan to enjoy the novel, but I do think you need to be familiar with storytelling tropes in order to fully appreciate how Scalzi plays with and subverts narrative conventions. I personally love it when writers do that, so Redshirts gets a big thumbs up from me. If you’re looking for a fun, fast, and absurd read, consider checking it out.
And what’s not to like about a book that has it’s own theme song:
Those costumes and special effects are amazing!