Okay, this book is just awesome. I started reading John Scalzi’s Redshirts before work one day, and almost instantly regretted my decision. Tip: Start it on a weekend, or after work, whenever you have a few free hours, because you will not want to put it down. That evening, watching me walk around with my nose stuck in this book, my sister observed that I was going through it pretty quickly. Yes I was, and it’s because, in my sister’s words, Redshirts hit all my geekspots.
I am a huge geek. I fangirl over Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock from Star Trek, for those who don’t know). When I saw this book in the Raincoast Books catalogue, even before reading the description, I immediately thought of Star Trek redshirts and was momentarily embarrassed that I may have confused a serious thriller with a Star Trek parody when I realized I right. Now, if like me, you know why you should never wear a red shirt on an alien planet, stop reading this review right now and find yourself a copy of this book.
Redshirts, as any self-respecting Trekkie knows, are the characters killed off before the first commercial break in the 1960s Star Trek series. Deaths usually occur when the crew beams down onto an alien planet, and they are usually pointless, put in only for some dramatic tension right before the opening credits. But what if the remaining future redshirts realize that there’s something fishy going on? What if they band together and decide to do something about it? In Redshirts, when Ensign Andrew Dahl joins the crew of the Intrepid, he finds out that a low-ranking crew member dies in every Away Mission, and that his more senior co-workers go into hiding every time a high ranking officer enters the room.
The first part of the book is a total send-up of Star Trek, and I suppose, other cheesy 60s science fiction shows. Scalzi’s observations about logical inconsistencies in Star Trek are spot-on, and he mercilessly undercuts them with biting humour yet also with an insider’s wink at the reader that belies the affection of a die-hard fan. To clarify: Redshirts is not just a Star Trek parody, in that it’s not an episode rehash with different names and caricatured details. The book is very much aware of how ridiculous some of its situations are, but there is enough underlying menace that even as we laugh, we realize how serious the situation is for the poor redshirt in it, and we genuinely want him to survive.
On an Away Mission in the first scene, Science Officer Q’eeng reveals that pulse guns are ineffective against Borgovian Land Worms, that in fact, pulse guns send them into a killing frenzy. Ensign Davis, who had just fired a pulse gun at an attacking worm, wonders why Q’eeng didn’t just reveal that very important bit of information during the mission briefing. The scene is hilarious, and we can just see it happening in a Star Trek episode, but we also can’t help but wonder why, indeed, Ensign Davis wasn’t provided with information that could save his life. Along with the hilarity comes the sobering realization that characters you come to care about are indeed treated as alien fodder. Because the story is told from the perspective of these redshirts, they become real to us, and, even as we laugh, we are struck by the unfairness of their situation.
The story takes an unexpected turn when Ensign Dahl and his friends discover the reason behind the redshirt phenomenon and make it their mission to change things. It’ll be difficult to discuss my reaction to the rest of the story without giving away any spoilers, so please excuse my vagueness. (Or, conversely, if what I write makes you guess something spoiler-y, I’m sorry — I definitely don’t want to give anything away.) Personally, with all the mystery and menace built up in the first part of the book, part of me wishes Scalzi had taken it in a different direction, a more straight up, mystery/thriller angle. That being said, I see how his choice actually makes even more sense for this story. While still keeping us on a crazy, hilarious ride, Scalzi’s twist introduces a philosophical angle, and offers us a new train of thought to ponder. I enjoyed the rest of the book — I laughed perhaps a bit less, but the plot remained compelling, and it was an interesting shift in reading experience. As with the first part, however, what kept me reading were the characters — I’d come to care for Ensign Dahl and his friends, and I wanted them to have much more of a life than redshirts usually do.
Minor quibble: You know how jokes have a point where, if you push it just that teensy bit over, it stops being funny? I personally thought Scalzi crossed that point in the last couple of chapters. He was coy enough about it, and smart enough not to belabour the point, so that it wasn’t annoying. As well, in fairness to him, it did fit with the rest of the story. Still, part of me went “meh” at that bit of development.
The novel ends with three codas. I hated the first one, mostly because if the last couple of chapters toyed with pushing the joke a bit too far, the first coda takes the joke all too seriously. I found it tiresome and just tad too self-aggrandizingly clever, and at that point, I wished the book had ended with just the novel. The next two codas, however, are brilliant. The second coda took the novel’s philosophical themes and expanded them by offering a different perspective. The “moral lesson” near the end was a bit too pat, a bit too neatly tied up, for me. It involved a message being delivered, and I wish the contents of the message were just less obvious. Still, other than that “moral lesson”, I loved the perspective provided by the second coda, and the new questions it raised.
The third and final coda, however, totally made the book for me. It took a funny, sometimes philosophical, other times exciting, novel and made it real. The characters felt real enough to care for — as I’ve said, I really wanted Ensign Dahl to change the redshirts’ fate — but the third coda took it to another level entirely. It gave a fully fleshed out story to a minor character, and in doing so, added texture and depth to the story of another secondary character in the novel proper. Definitely one of the best parts of the book.
Redshirts is as hilarious and thrilling as you would expect, but it works because Scalzi takes it far beyond that. Trekkies and fans of cheesy science fiction shows in general will find much to recognize and laugh at in this novel. Non-fans may not have as many knee-jerk laugh out loud moments, but I’d say it’s worth flipping through anyway, just to see if it’s for you. I had such a blast reading this book, and highly recommend it to fellow geeks everywhere. Trust me: it’ll hit all your geekspots.
Thank you to Raincoast Books for an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.