I’ve been reading a ton of John Scalzi lately, as anyone who has been watching my book reviews knows. Scalzi is a huge fanboy and I don’t say that as though it is a bad thing, he and I share a lot of similar interests and when he takes a well-loved fannish concept and runs with it, the results are almost always fantastic.
This time out, he remembers the old Star Trek concept of the “redshirt”, expendable crew members whose only purpose was to die a horrible death before the first commercial break on the original Star Trek series. But what happens if those “redshirts” aren’t as expendable as we think? Let’s find out.
Andy Dahl is a new ensign aboard the flagship of the Universal Union, the Intrepid. However, he soon finds that life aboard the Intrepid is very dangerous, especially on away missions, where someone is almost always guaranteed to die. It isn’t because they do incredibly dangerous missions, there are other reasons that Dahl and his crewmates could never have predicted that sends them on a race across time and dimensions to uncover the mysteries of the “redshirts”.
Now let’s be honest, this is kind of a predictable book, especially if you are already a fan of TOS. He spends a good portion of the book explaining the rules, who is likely to die and who has script immunity before having Jenkins, the geek living in the walls, explain why everything is happening. While I don’t recall Scalzi dropping too many hints in the first half of the book, I pretty well knew what was happening before the big reveal but I don’t think the idea is particularly novel to begin with. That doesn’t make it bad, but dealing with meta-realities has been done in the past and I picked up on the possibility pretty early on. It reminded me a lot of the 1999 film Galaxy Quest.
The characters are generally fun and reasonably fleshed out, although, because these are really just archetypes, their backgrounds are really only set dressing for the roles they occupy. That’s not bad because that’s all it’s supposed to be. I never saw Dahl or Duvall or Jenkins as deep or meaningful characters because they are, at the end of the day, just throwaway background characters on a bad sci-fi TV show, you don’t expect more from them. That doesn’t make them uninteresting, just not more than they’re supposed to be.
John Scalzi, after the story was done, wrote three Codas, in which he examined the meta-concepts of television shows creating real universes and that was certainly interesting, there’s a lot of philosophical navel-gazing that can be done on the subject, but when it comes to telling a story, I don’t know that I really care about the potential story behind the story, I’ll leave that for others to consider.
Redshirts won the 2013 Hugo for Best Novel and is being made into a TV mini-series for FX, at least last I knew. I’m certainly going to watch it once it airs, assuming it airs. This was a short book, about 150 pages before the Codas, but it didn’t feel like it needed more. In fact, it could have been a shorter story if some of the padding were taken out. If you like Star Trek, if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a “redshirt”, then by all means, go hunt down this book, you won’t regret it.