Book Review- Redshirts by John Scalzi

I finished Redshirts night before last. I’ve already moved on to my next read, The Lies of Locke Lamora, and picked up a novella called Purple and Black by K.J. Parker. But, now isn’t the time for them. Now is the time to talk about Redshirts.

You’ve been warned. There might be spoilers ahead.

I think I have to start by telling you that this book is ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. The things that characters are put through, and the science (read “lack thereof”) they have to implement to save themselves is preposterous. And it’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s downright hilarious.

Now, if you know even a little about Star Trek: The Original Series, affectionately known as TOS, you know about Redshirts. Those poor souls who follow the main characters to away missions, only to die in painful and shocking ways. And they’re always in the red uniforms of the science department. Poor sods.

Scalzi’s novel, Redshirts, tells the story of Ensign Andy Dahl, a xenobiologist recently assigned to the star ship Intrepid. Andy discovers, within moments of being on board, that something odd is happening on the ship.

Higher ranking personnel keep a low profile, and hide when they see any of the ship’s officers. They even seem to have a warning system, that allows them to conveniently disappear right before one of the Intrepid’s officers enters the room.

And the away missions? Well, someone, some poor, low man on the totem pole, dies every time. And it’s never a peaceful or unassuming death. It’s Ice Sharks, Borgovian Land Worms, and defense robots wielding giant spears.

And even though someone dies, one particular officer, Lieutenant Kerensky, always finds himself horribly injured or ill, on the brink of death. Naturally, the science teams are tasked with finding cures to diseases that make no sense, and are urged to come up with antedotes and cures that make even less sense. So much so that there is a box kept in xenobiology, that looks oddly reminiscent of a microwave, that will literally cook the problem, until it dings, providing impossible data with moments to spare, conveniently saving Kerensky every time.

And this is just the basic intro to Scalzi’s novel. This is the foundation.

Andy and his friends refuse to accept the way things are on the Intrepid. So, they hunt down the only person who might know what’s happening. A recluse, who lives in the cargo tunnels, named Jenkins. He has his own sad back story involving a dead wife, but I’ll talk about that later.

Together, Dahl and Jenkins realize that the only other spacecraft in the history of the universe to experience so many crew casualties is the Starship Enterprise, from Star Trek: The Original Series. Therefore, they theorize that they, too, must be on a science fiction television show.

It gets pretty meta from here.

In order to save themselves from gruesome and pointless deaths, Dahl and Company devise a plan to go back in time to the year 2012, find the writers and producers of the show, and beg them to stop killing off random ensigns.

Yes, it’s ridiculous. That’s the point.

Anyway, using the preposterous “science” outlined in a previous “episode” that featured time travel, Dahl and his friends make it safely to 2012. Once there, they hunt down multiple actors, all who look exactly like themselves, and devise a plan to fix the show. And save their lives.
redshirts en francais

I don’t want to get into too many details, because the last 75 pages or so of the main story are just wonderful. And even though I warned you about spoilers, I don’t have the heart to butcher them here. If you really want to know what happens, read the book.

It’s a wonderfully quick read. The dialogue is snappy, and often foul-mouthed. The narration and dialogue are both witty and dry, and I laughed out loud, a lot.

But, what really surprised me about this book was the last hundred pages. After the main story is done, and you know what becomes of Dahl and his friends, there is a series of three Codas: First Person, Second Person, and Third Person.

Each Coda follows one of the “side characters” from the past. The Writer of the show, the Producer’s son, and the woman who played Jenkin’s wife. And each of them, though still witty, still dry, left me feeling awed.

Each Coda uses this crazy, hyper-meta scenario of a book to point out how fictional characters can have very real impacts on our lives. It shows, in a subtle and emotional way, how stories and their characters can force us to see the world differently, and even see ourselves, and our place within that world, differently.

They’re calmly powerful moments, shared in different points of view, that help ground the ridiculous main story, and give the previous 230 pages some real meaning.

I didn’t see it coming, but I loved each one.

This is a wonderful book. It’s hilarious, and the characters are immediately identifiable. You care about them all very quickly. The story reads fast, mainly because there’s no world building. Scalzi doesn’t waste time telling you what the Intrepid looks like. We already know. Whether you’re a fan or not, you’ve been exposed to enough Science Fiction for your mind to conjure up a basic space ship.

And that lack of world building really cuts down on the need for exposition, speeding up the reading process.

If you’re even slightly interested in science fiction, I’d recommend this book. It’s a feel good story, quick to read, and it will make you laugh. Guaranteed.

Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it! I’ll see you soon, Blogland!



3 thoughts on “Book Review- Redshirts by John Scalzi”

  1. I loved this book too, and like you I was surprised and moved by the codas. I love it when a book manages to comment on culture while still being entertaining in its own right – often things get a little too serious for that. But Scalzi combines the elements beautifully.

    Lies of Locke Lamora in high on my to-read list too – it might be time I got around to that.

    1. So far Lies of Locke Lamora has really impressed me. There’s a really great mixture of nice descriptive language and the harsh language of the thief culture. The juxtaposition makes me giggle quite a bit.

      1. Cool. I’ve never heard anyone say a bad thing about that book, and the premise sounds really intriguing. Your point about the language makes me even more interested.

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