Friday, June 01, 2012

“Redshirts” by John Scalzi (Tor/Gollancz)

Scalzi-Red ShirtsYou’re an Extra. You are not long for this universe… [Or: “All your lives are belong to us…”]

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.

I really have no idea how to review this novel… The potential for spoilers is just too great. Which is a pity, as the novel is filled with quotable passages. I’d been really looking forward to this ever since it was first announced – it sounded like an endearing parody of the tropes of old sci-fi movies and fiction. As it turned out, that is exactly what a lot of this novel is. I certainly enjoyed it, and read it at near-record speed (for me), but I do have mixed feelings about the book as a whole.

I was rather wary at the start, and a little concerned, as I thought the prologue was a bit lacklustre (I chuckled, but it didn’t feel as polished as expected). However, the story got rapidly much, much better and certainly more funny as the new crew’s experiences just get more strange. The novel is very fast-paced, and Scalzi writes stripped-down prose and a lot of quippy, very natural dialogue. It’s amusing, sarcastic, cynical, and full of witty asides.

The main characters are quite fun, and I liked that they are as bemused and amused as we are about how ridiculous their situation is. As one character mentions, when discussing their situation and what they’ve observed on the ship:

“Of course, none of it even begins to make sense if you think about it.”

He’s absolutely right, but that’s kinda why we keep watching and (in this case) reading. Because it’s absolutely daft, but a lot of fun. There are unsettling mortality rates, strange goings-on, the Box, melodrama, and a pressing need to “Avoid the Narrative.”

Readers are effectively asked to suspend their disbelief – there are some pretty silly things in here. You’ll have to suspend your disbelief as much as you would have to watch early Star Trek or another early/classic/vintage sci-fi show or movie that never really made any sense. (Which, in my mind, is an awful lot of them.) Redshirts shares some of the humour and tone of Galaxy Quest, poking a lot of good-natured fun at the tropes of shows like Star Trek and old conventions of science-fiction.

The one thing I will “spoil”, though, is that I was rather surprised when the novel’s main story abruptly finished roughly two-thirds of the way into the book. There are three “Coda” that make up the final 100~ pages of the book. They’re pretty interesting, and they were certainly an interesting inclusion. I’d be lying if I hadn’t been disappointed that there weren’t 100 more pages of Redshirts spoofing, though. The first Coda went on for just a little too long, but I liked that Scalzi managed to talk about writing within the framework of the novel’s premise. The second and third coda were much better – they are both completely different style to the main novel (which makes them an excellent showcase of what Scalzi can do, if you’re new to his work), and they both finish on a rather emotional note. [Scalzi has, actually addressed the Coda in a blog post.]

So. In sum, this is a rather difficult and awkward book to write about without spoiling. I wish I could go on at more length, sharing some of the gems, but also going into more detail about the things that concerned me. It was fun, and I frequently chuckled at the quips and witticisms. I do wish the Coda had taken up less of the book, and the novel’s main story had been longer.

I am sure I didn’t get all of the jokes or references (despite my fondness for science fiction, I’m not well-versed in Star Trek and other history), but it was good fun. If you’re looking for an amusing, endearing parody of classic science-fiction TV, then Redshirts should do the trick.


Redshirts will be published in the US on June 5th, and in the UK on November 15, 2012 (Gollancz).


You can find my previous, less-serious “review” of Redshirts (with pictures!), here.


  1. I'm about halfway through Redshirts right now, and loving it! it's hysterical! Yes, the prose is very simple and quick, it's almost like reading a very basic novelization of a tv show or a tv movie.

    My childhood was pretty much defined by Star Trek, so I'm in spoof heaven.

    1. Prose being "simple and quick" isn't necessarily a bad thing. When it's "simplistic" is when it's bad. This isn't simplistic.

      See, much of my childhood wasn't occupied by watching Star Trek, so some of this I probably missed. Nevertheless, I think even people with only a casual exposure to Star Trek will 'get' this.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts! :)

  2. It is true that Redshirts skewers early Trek and it does it very, very well. And it contains the best BJ joke you've probably heard all year. Yet Scalzi goes much deeper. The story begins simply enough with new ensign level crew members coming aboard the Universal Union flagship Intrepid, which just always seems to be running low on crew. They quickly realize they are the expendable type, but something more seems to be going on then that. Improbable things keep happening and then things get meta and weird. Or is all meta weird?

    Either way Scalzi has written the book he's probably be dying to get to for years. It is a much stronger showing then Fuzzy Nation.