Tor, 2012, 320 pages, C$28.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-765-31699-8
Geez: As recently as three years ago, I used to read (nearly) all Hugo-nominated novels as a matter of course –sometimes even before they were nominated. Now it takes a year before I get around to reading the one Hugo-winning novel. Life changes. Stuff happens. I’m busy. Insert your favorite excuse here.
It’s not even as if I had any particular reluctance to pick up John Scalzi’s Redshirts: I’ve been reading Scalzi since the original hardcover of Old Man’s War, have the rest of his novels on my shelves and find him to be a highly enjoyable entertainer. His work tends to be slighter than I’d prefer, and not every one of his novel works (I’ll argue that Zoe’s Tale, as charming and readable it can be, is almost useless from a narrative standpoint when put alongside The Last Colony.) but he is, book-for-book, one of the most reliable professionals in the business today.
But I’ve been taking a break from reading in general for the past two years, and it’s only now that I’ve got the time for Redshirts. I will admit that my enthusiasm for the title was tempered somewhat by the plot summary, concerned as it is with the fate of expendable people in a suspiciously Star Trek-like future. The titular “Redshirts” expression is an old Star Trek fandom joke (as in “if you’re wearing a red shirt, you’re in trouble!” –because you will die in the first act as a way to heighten suspense) and I wasn’t too sure what Scalzi would be able to bring to the concept.
For a while, it looks as if he doesn’t do much more than bring his usual witty dialogue and light touch to the table. As five new crewmembers board the Starship Intrepid, the in-jokes fly thick and low: everyone aboard is terrified to volunteer for away missions, lousy science seems to be the order of the day, and none of our witty five new crewmembers have any clue as to what’s happening. It’s not unpleasant to read, but it’s not much above dozens of years of trek in-jokes and banter. In fact, at that point, Redshirts seems to be a sub-standard comic Trek take-off, unwilling to dig deeper in the inanity of Trek’s premise and markedly less amusing than what one would expect from a comic romp. Andrew Dahl and the Methods of Rationality this isn’t.
But wait… because there’s some serious weirdness ahead. It quickly becomes clear that something very strange in happening aboard the Intrepid whenever events start taking on dramatic qualities. People act differently, not quite understanding why they do. Logic flies off the window, taking with it what a professional team should know. Ominous warnings are given about The Narrative. People die, following a logic that our heroes desperately try to understand before they, too, suffer the same fate.
Before long, things turn severely meta and Redshirts finally becomes more interesting than the simple Trek commentary promised on the back-cover. Without spoiling anything explicitly, let’s just say that Scalzi revisits territory previously explored in Agent to the Stars, and questions of personal identity similar to The Ghost Brigades. The novel ends with philosophical questions about our relationship to fiction. Redshirts concludes quickly, leaving time for three codas that prove unexpectedly moving as consequences to the novel’s events are explored, further developing our understanding of the wreckage left behind by protagonist heroics. Redshirts gets more and more interesting throughout, eventually showing (among other things) why it’s not a bad idea for someone with a degree in philosophy to be writing science-fiction.
There are highs and lows along the way. Much of the writing is Scalzi’s usual mixture of snark and wittiness, which works well in blog posts but occasionally feels misplaced on the page. Many of the lead characters can’t easily be distinguished (this is played for laughs once, but it more often smacks of Scalzi-writes-one-kind-of-character-really-well. There are significant issues with willing disbelief in the middle third of the novel (including mentioning Star Trek by name), that are eventually papered over by the rest of the story. But, to its credit, Redshirts is rarely less than compelling to read: it’s got a lot of that elusive “reading fun” that so many other novels fail to achieve. Don’t be surprised to finish it within days even if you are a slow or busy reader.
(I’m not quite as convinced it should have been a Hugo-award-winning novel, but I’ll leave that rant for another time.)