Review – Redshirts by John Scalzi

It’s possible that a decade of attempting to parse dialogue from reality show contestants, sports announcers, and soft core porn stars into coherent closed-captions has completely destroyed my sense of grammar, but I’m pretty there’s something off about each of the following sentences:

  • “At evening mess, Dahl caught up his four friends with what he learned in the lab…”
  • “Captain, we need to move…There may be others of these carts.”
  • “Andy, the next time you want to drug into unconsciousness the person you’re screwing, you can do it any way you want to.”
  • “The last guy in that condo I’m pretty sure was making meth in the bathtub.”

At first I thought it was just me. Maybe I was reading too fast. The second time I spotted something odd,  I started taking notes, and I began to wonder if the author was just British. I briefly convinced myself that these examples were all artifacts from a previous draft, overlooked and accidentally included in the final version. Then I got to the last one and gave up. On every level, Redshirts is just written wrong.

Admittedly, I went into Redshirts with a bit of a bias against John Scalzi. He wrote a gushing blurb for Ready Player One and was also name-dropped in that novel as one of the great, must-read science fiction authors of our time. Since I found Ready Player One to be an egregious example of the embarrassingly low bar geeks set for in-jokes and referential banter, I was suspicious of anyone connected to it. And since Scalzi’s book was inspired by a fairly well-known Star Trek trope, I was prepared for the worst.

What I didn’t expect was for Scalzi’s novel to be about a bunch of expendable extras who discover that they’re characters in a TV series. It’s clear from the opening chapter that this is where the book is headed, but it takes 150 pages before it’s spelled out, and I dreaded it all the way. As it turns out, Redshirts isn’t an unfunny, generic parody of Star Trek. It’s an unfunny, lazy story about stories.

Once the characters come to understand their fictional nature, Scalzi does introduce a clever idea or two. Although the logic that allows them to get there is flawed, the plan the characters come up with to solve their dilemma is pretty ingenious. However, it’s hampered by the disconnect created in breaking the fourth wall in the wrong medium– having the characters realize they’re in a TV show when they’re actually in a book– and the sort of interminable conversations that reveal little thought to character, but say more about the dialogue an author has going on in his or her head when they’re writing:

“May I ask you a question?” Dahl asked.

“You mean, besides that one?” Jenkins asked.

It’s a bad habit I find endemic to geek-friendly writers. That sort of “aren’t we snarky” one-upmanship plays fine with a living ensemble cast, but falls flat in prose. I wasn’t surprised to find it omnipresent here.

With the premise finally established, the plot itself takes up less than 100 pages. To pad it out, Scalzi provides three unnecessary codas, including a lengthy series of blog posts from the lead scriptwriter of the book’s fictional TV series. The codas are better written than the rest of the book, but they merely cement the impression that Redshirts is less of a cohesive whole and more like a series of dashed off creative writing projects.

Here’s the thing. This is a book about the anonymous ensigns who visit strange planets with Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy and get killed. Once they recognize the pattern, they team up and try to protect themselves. It’s been done, but it could still be fun. But I can’t help but feel, as a geeky guy myself, that we deserve better than this.

Back in the days before the Internet, you had to look hard to find novels, TV shows, and movies with jokes that only nerds like us would get. Now they’re everywhere, and I don’t think just referencing something like, “Hey, this is like in Star Trek!” is funny anymore. There’s no effort, no creativity, and I personally find the idea that merely mentioning something from popular culture can be a joke in and of itself irritating and alienating.

I’m not a Star Trek fan. I’ve seen most of the movies, but the only series I watched regularly was Voyager– because it was the one that was on when I was in college, and because it had Robert Picardo. A book like Redshirts should be dense with in-jokes I don’t even notice are there. I should come away from it amused, but aware that there are deeper levels to it I’ll always find impenetrable.

Instead, it’s just a book anyone who’s seen Galaxy Quest could write.

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2 Comments

  1. Let’s be fair, though. This isn’t really a book for us adults. I cringed all the way through it, too, but I know it would have turned my head inside-out if I’d found it in high school. Give your copy to a younger relative and keep the heavy stuff for yourself.

    1. Hmm. That’s an interpretation I didn’t consider. I’m still under the impression that the book is intended for adults, although I’d agree in execution– thin high concept, flat characters– it’s very similar to your typical YA genre novel. To the best of my knowledge though, this book was intended to be on every sci-fi fan’s summer reading list, which was why I decided to check it out.

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