Redshirts, by John Scalzi

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Publication date – June 5, 2012

Summary; (Taken from GoodReadsEnsign 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.

Thoughts: Imagine living in an episode of Star Trek. Imagine the slow dawning of comprehension as your realize that every away mission involves more officers than needed and a couple of random people from random ship departments going into dangerous situations, and those random people never seem to come back alive. Imagine that your job relies in making stuff up in critical situations and only pretending to actually work, and being caught in bad situations when your superiors constantly duck out when push comes to shove and everything left in your McGuffin-covered hands.

…Okay, except for that last bit echoing real life for many people, welcome to the world of ensign Andrew Dahl, main character of Redshirts and baffled crewmember of the United Union ship Intrepid.

Scalzi tells a hilarious and very meta tale in Redshirts, both with genial foible-poking and fun-making at many of the tropes present in Star Trek episodes, and then turns everything on its head by making the whole thing a universe created by a TV show writer, taking the concepts of world-building and character creation to a literal level. It’s a common joke with writers that characters don’t often behave and do as they’re told, and this little in-joke is evident as Dahl tries to gain control and salvage both his life and the life of the show which sustains it.

Scalzi fills this book with an off-the-wall brain-twisty situation that’s at the same time wonderfully realistic, with well-developed characters and witty humour both in dialogue and narration. It’s not a long or involved novel for all that it’s a bit of a brain-bender, which makes it perfect for those who are looking for some light and intelligent SFF literature in their day.

Although that’s Redshirts’s strength, it’s also the book’s weakness, presenting a complex and inventive plot like in such a short book. I’ll grant you, dragging it out would have ruined the punchy humour, and the novel was fast-paced without being rushed, it felt very much like literary junk food – it’s there and then it’s gone. Perfect if what you’re looking for is some junk food, but it’s not the most substantial novel. Very much like a standalone episode of Star Trek, actually, which is another point in the book’s favour considering its premise, but it still feels largely insubstantial, and not particularly memorable.

Still, it was a fun read, witty and creative and it actually made me laugh aloud a few times, so it still gets praise from me. It’s worth reading if you’re a fan of Star Trek, and if episodes of the show featured prominently in your youth, but otherwise, it’s hit-or-miss as to whether this book will make an impact on you. Good humourous fun with creativity and intelligence, but don’t expect it to be life-altering.

4 comments on “Redshirts, by John Scalzi

    • I was wondering that, after I’d read it. It’s not a bad book, and I can’t deny that it’s intelligent, creative, and very entertaining, but it didn’t strike me as the kind of book that wins huge awards like that. There were definitely other contenders for the prize that I thought would have come out on top.

      Not sure about the audiobook version, having never heard it. Was it done particularly well?

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