Tome of Geek: Redshirts by John Scalzi

I am going to review REDSHIRTS by John Scalzi.  In order to give this the review it deserves it will involve spoilers.  I’ll try to limit them but I can only go so far.  So here it is – before we go any further.  SPOILERS

CoverThe book follows Ensign Andrew Dahl, a member of the space faring Universal Union, who has been assigned to the fleet’s flagship The Intrpid.  For any person in the UU this is the price posting.  Only the best-of-the-best get to be on the ship and Dahl has just been declared the best-of-the-best.  He’ll gain prestige; it’ll look good on his career docket, help him gain promotions faster and allow him to go onto the popular Away Mission alongside the starship’s famous senior officers.

Life couldn’t be better until three facts begin to reveal themselves.

  1. Every Away Mission involves a lethal confrontation with alien forces,
  2. The ship’s senior officers always survive these confrontations, and
  3. Sadly, at least one low-ranking crew member is invariably killed. Unsurprisingly, the savvier crew members below decks avoid Away Missions at all costs.

The book starts out with the Intrepid’s ensigns dealing with the fact that they are on a ship with a high mortality rate and having to work knowing that at any second you could die and in the more horrible of ways.  It’s an examination of how the crew members of Star Trek (TOS) would live their lives knowing that on the next mission they take with Kirk or Spock or Bones could easily be their last.

It’s a nice concept that Scalzi took, examining a show we all know and a fact we all parody, and looking at its ‘real-world’ implications.  How do you work and live in such an environment.  At times it very much becomes a comparison to the men and woman who go overseas, knowing that they could wake up and take a bullet between the eyes.

Well for the first couple chapters at least.

Ok here it is again.  SPOILERS.  This is the point of no return.  I cannot review this book without this spoiler.  The rest of the book is based on it.

About a quarter of the way in the Ensigns come to a realization.  The Intrepid, and its crew, are in fact stars of a TV show – and worst of all it’s not a very good one.

Somewhere a writer is penning a script for the latest episode and then it happens in their world.  When the writer kills a ensign, a redshirt, a crew member on the Intrepid dies – normally horribly.  There world exist without the show, partially, but when the Narrative takes over the world changes.  The main character personality alter, their speech becomes more dramatic, and even the laws of physics change, all because of the Narrative.

Nobody knows how it works but they assume that the writers in our universe created theirs when the show creator started work on the show and now both seem to exist, side-by-side.

Dahl and his friends find their lives dictated by the Narrative but they try to fight back.  Slowly they learn the rules, they learn how to survive, how to manipulate the rules to make their lives better – or at least try.

This is where the book gets META.  VERY, VERY META.

Scalzi examines how people in a ‘fictional’ universe try to survive in a world where they have no control.  He examines how fictional characters battle free-will versus fate.  How to rebel against those who try to control your lives?  It’s a book that blurs the lines between fiction and reality.

There are similar products that have attempted this before, the most popular of them – or well known – was the movie Stranger than Fiction staring Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman.  Another example would be Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.  Both films involve fictional elements crossing over into a real-world scenario.

John ScalziWhat make Scalzi’s version stand out is how he set it up.  Scalzi uses a setting we’re all familiar with, Star Trek, and bases the book around the (he even references that he based it around Star Trek within the book) elements we all know.  Red Shirts.  Using a setting we are familiar with allows for him to examiner deeper issues, and more complicated themes and characters.  It allows for a more in depth character study when the lines eventually cross and character meets actor and the red shirts meet the actors.  It means the story becomes stronger without having to describe space and scifi.  Scalzi is amazing at science fiction, a new master, and excels at describing the futuristic worlds he creates, but this book doesn’t require it.  It stand stronger without the detailed space.

Something else that Scalzi did was make three Codas; three short stories that examine three separate, albeit minor, people in our world that get grossly affected by the eventual crossing of fiction and reality.  They take place after the main story and examine how their lives are forever changed.  It’s a nice look at the impact the events have without having to be forced to do a sequel and loosing the aftermath in ‘major event 2.’  I think more books should take this up.

So in conclusion, aside from Scalzi very liberal use of cursing, wrote a brilliant novel.  It’s one that makes me, a writer, question the hypothetical ramifications of writing.  It is a great book that needs to read by Star Trek fans, science fiction fans, and fans of a book with a really great message.

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