Thursday, 19 September 2013

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Redshirts by John Scalzi was this year's Hugo-winning novel. I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by Wil Wheaton. As you can probably guess from the cover and title, Redshirts pays homage to all the extras who died in Star Trek, usually while wearing a red shirt.
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.
Redshirts turned out to be less flippant and shallow than I had been led to expect. The universe Dahl and his friends live in is, more or less, perfectly sensible. And yet, the events surrounding the Intrepid and its senior officers are not sensible in any way. We are given a sense of this immediately from the prologue, which highlights the way characters are sometimes inexplicably driven to things they would not usually do. As the story develops we learn more about exactly why this is. In a way, the reader already knows why things are silly, but on the other hand, the exposition is not entirely straight forward. This is a more complex story than it seems on the surface.

My favourite thing about it — which should not surprise long-term readers of my blog — was the way Scalzi highlighted the sloppy worldbuilding and nonsensical physics of those sorts of science fiction sci-fi properties. The rules for the Box, which magically quantum computationally solves medical/biological problems in exactly the right amount of time, amused me particularly. So did the logic holes that baffled the characters themselves. Honestly, a novice writer could learn a lot by noting whether they do any of the things Scalzi brings up.

The subtitle of Redshirts is A Novel With Three Codas and I would be remiss if I did not mention them. After a story that puts disposable extras peripheral characters in the spotlight, the codas highlight the stories of characters on the fringes of Dahl's story, who are all touched significantly by the events of the novel, but whose stories don't fit into the main arc at all. The whole thing gets a bit meta.

Despite all the scathing commentary of the sci-fi genre, Scalzi brings a great deal of empathy and emotional significance to the tale. Even before we get to know any of the characters well, we feel bad for them. As we do get to know them better, the possibility of their deaths becomes heart-wrenching (and since they are still redshirts in their universe, it was difficult to predict who would survive a particular situation (except in retrospect). For a story that looks flippant on the surface, it was surprisingly heart-wrenching.

I have not watched much Star Trek (all I remember clearly are the two JJ Abrams movies) but as a geek the concept of a redshirt was in no way foreign to me. I expect that most geeks would enjoy Redshirts — and understand the concept — whether or not they are Trekkies. Highly recommended read/listen. People with little familiarity with sci-fi or science fiction probably won't get as much out of it, however.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2012
Series: No
Format read: Audiobook
Source: Purchased on sale from Audible

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