I recently finished reading Redshirts, by John Scalzi. It’s actually the first Scalzi I’ve read, but I kept hearing how good he is. As a Star Trek fan, the premise of Redshirts just seemed too good to pass up, so it seemed like the perfect place to start.
Redshirts is the story of those nameless crew members on a spaceship who, on away missions down to planets or space stations, die. It’s a parody of this phenomenon that happened a lot in Star Trek – especially the original series. It’s also a much larger meta tale, but I can get into that more below…
The long and short of it is, I’m glad I read this! Is it the best parody of Star Trek ever? No, Galaxy Quest still takes that cake. Is its commentary on lazy storytelling biting and awesome? Yes, yes it is. Hidden in this story about the hapless, no-name characters doomed to die to add a bit of drama to a scene is a commentary on how relying heavily on this trope is not good storytelling, is not fair to your characters or your audience. You should have to earn character deaths, make those characters real and meaningful. Because in real life, that’s what people are.
The book closes beautifully with, as the cover says, three codas. After arguing that in storytelling you should have to earn your emotional payoffs, and that your characters should be more than bit players, he goes back and gives us a perspective from three characters, telling us what happened to them because of the plot. This is Scalzi, after telling us about earning an emotional payoff, showing us how it’s done. These, in many ways, take this story from a fun comedy parody with a bit of a message into a deep, impactful story that’s worth far more to the reader.
So that’s my spoiler-free review and thoughts on the book. As a writer, or reader, or TV viewer, or TV criticizer, or a Star Trek fan… I would say for sure read this book. And if you somehow read the novel and skipped the codas, my goodness, go back and read the codas. Go now, I’ll wait. Oh, and if you’re curious still or want to move on to some spoilers… let’s do that below!
This is easily one of the most meta pieces I’ve ever read. And the comparisons to Galaxy Quest are right there… it involves a TV show, while being a parody of a TV show. But while in Galaxy Quest the real-life (fictional) actors from the show end up caught up in a real space adventure based on their antics, in Redshirts, it’s real space goers ending up being scripted by a TV crew.
I like that the why and how is never fully explained, because that still makes it better science than some of the other science in the book – that is, the science being written by the TV writers (a commentary on obviously-bad science in science fiction). In so many ways, it’s inconsequential why it’s happening. What matters is that the writers are killing off redshirts, and real (in the story) spacefaring crew is dying. It’s some serious Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead territory, it’s characters dead because the writer said so, it’s absurdist. The characters feel what they call The Narrative taking over, and they say and do things against their own nature, and against their own self-interest.
Figuring out what was going on was fun, but solving the problem is honestly even better. Because they figure out what era the show must have been written during, and they figure out when they need to go back to to stop all the deaths – by time traveling back. And here’s where the bad science especially rears its head, because they can time travel by the power of The Narrative, by having a main character from the show with them, and by using the means and rules of time travel from a previous episode of the show.
They then deal with the hard reality that it’s hard to just go and stop a TV show that’s making money mid-season. And to not mess up the time stream. And to deal with all of their dopplegangers, as they meet the people who play them in the TV show. They navigate all of this, and decide that their best option is to tell the head writer the whole truth, and to hold him to a higher standard of storytelling. And that’s where Scalzi gets to include a very real, and still very relevant, commentary.
I feel like that’s most of what I want to say… the basic premise on this, making the redshirts the main characters, is solid and could have been handled in a really superficial way – Scalzi goes much further with it than that. While it might feel easy to compare it to Galaxy Quest, it’s definitely a different story and they’re both great. I definitely recommend this as a read, but if you’ve read it, you tell me – what else should I read by Scalzi? And what did you think?