by John Scalzi
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Shortly after Ensign Andrew Dahl is assigned to the Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union fleet in John Scalzi’s Redshirts, he comes to several realizations about life. Unfortunately, his realization is that ensigns who are assigned to travel down to planets with officers have a life expectancy that can be summed up by Thomas Hobbes’s description: “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” As any good protagonist would, Dahl and his fellow ensigns try to make sense of their apparent existence-as-cannon-fodder.
Scalzi has taken the trope of the redshirt, the previously unseen character in an episode of Star Trek whose sole purpose is to die and has more fun with it than any author since Douglas Adams asked his audience to empathize with a doomed whale in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Dahl and his mates rapidly realize that while things aboard the Intrepid can appear normal, there are times when things go haywire, with the officers acting irrationally and overly heroic, and danger coming from all sides in some inane ways. They are guided in their investigations by Jenkins, a strange figure who skulks within the walls of the ship, reminiscent of Laszlo from the film Real Genius.
In fact, part of the fun is the variety of homages Scalzi includes to television and film, pointing out their clichés and inanities which are introduced not for any logical reason, but to provide a cliffhanger, much like Gwen DeMarco deploring that “This episode was badly written!” However, while others have pointed out the ridiculousness of the genre, Scalzi’s novel is not redundant, bringing its own loving parody to the unrealistic situations the crew finds themselves in and they struggle for life, knowing that some force, which Jenkins calls “The Narrative” has specifically targeted them.
The key to the novel’s success is that Scalzi isn’t attacking a genre that he doesn’t care about. He understands science fiction, in its written and cinematic form. He has worked on a television show and has some idea about what goes on behind the scenes and how decisions are made. He knows the history of the genre, not just the Star Treks and Isaac Asimovs, but the lesser known works. All of that gives Redshirts an heart that is missing from many parodies and satires where the authors sees the easy targets, but doesn’t actually understand their appeal. The situations and humor in Redshirts is the nudge-and-a-wink from a fellow conspirator, not the condescension of an outsider.
Not only does Redshirts work as a novel, but Scalzi is able to make the characters come alive. When his primary narrative ends more than a hundred pages before the end of the book, he is able to turn his attention to secondary characters and make them as real as the protagonist who drove the first two-thirds of the novel. Although this aspect of the book shouldn't work, Scalzi manages to make it work, partly because Redshirts offers a fair amount of acknowledged absurdity from its first pages, but mostly because Scalzi makes his characters real, especially when the material says the characters should merely be two-dimensional.
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