Tuesday, December 2, 2014
Redshirts by John Scalzi
by John Scalzi
Tor Books, 2012
Oh John Scalzi. You are one of the big Good Guys in my world. There are so many reasons to be impressed with Scalzi and his writing, most of which one can glean from his blog and his Twitter feed, both of which I follow daily. He's not universally loved - someone with a blog tagline of "Taunting the Tauntable since 1998" is not going to be universally loved - but for someone with my sense of humour and sociocultural views, he's brain candy.
So are his books. They are clever, funny, extremely well-written, entertaining, thoughtful, and often moving. Well, the three I have read, one of which was non-fiction, so I suppose my sample size is limited, but I have faith. Old Man's War remains one of my favourite science fiction novels ever (and it's military SF, no less!) and holds the distinction of being the most fully genre-y book that my entire adventurous book club agreed was great.
Those of you who have watched Star Trek (any iteration) will be familiar with the concept of the redshirt, whether you know it by name or not. These are the minor characters, the ones who might not even have a name, who are along for whatever away mission might be happening, and who generally end up dead in order to prove that there's some sort of danger. Notice that with extremely rare exceptions, the main characters don't end up dead. They might end up injured, but not dead. It's the low-ranking extras who bite it.
Redshirts is about the ones who end up dead. Scalzi imagines them with real lives and loves and ideas, histories that are more than just pertinent to the storyline, and a realization that the way things are happening on their ship, the Intrepid, is statistically totally improbable. They are fighting to regain control of their lives, which means they are literally fighting for their lives - fighting The Narrative, an unseen menace that takes over people's minds, bodies, and even the laws of physics with disturbing regularity. And what's worse, as Jenkins, the conspiracy theorist who eventually convinces our main characters says, is that the sci-fi television show they're all living in isn't very good.
This is very clever, loving satire. It pokes gleeful holes in all the SF television tropes, but it does it in a way that is thoughtful - it really follows the consequences through - and what I really appreciated was that it wasn't only about the satire. It was also a book about friendship, love, and loyalty; about peeling back layers and asking the important and sometimes difficult questions. It was about fate versus free will, and even about what it means to die, and what it means to live.
I think having more than a passing familiarity with Star Trek in its many incarnations helped in the enjoyment of this book, because I really got it. I got the jokes, I got the references, and I appreciated all of them. It added an extra layer of glee.
But - and this is important - because of all the other wonderful things about this book, and the fact that it isn't just about the satire, you don't have to be familiar with Star Trek to enjoy the story. Or even get most of the jokes, because the relevant parts are explained. This is a funny book whether or not you know the backstory, and it contains far more than it appears at first glance. Highly recommended for science fiction buffs, and definitely readable for those of you who don't read sci-fi but think you might like it. It's an excellent entry into the genre.