In Books: Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas
Written by: John Scalzi
Published by: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
Love it, hate it, take it or leave it there is no doubt that Star Trek has had a huge impact on contemporary culture. So much so, that I would give fifty fifty odds that my Mom knows what a redshirt is. So what happens when the redshirts start to notice? What happens when the redshirts decide they don’t want to die?
And Mom if I’m wrong, a short explanation of redshirts; in nearly every episode of Star Trek there would be some reason for Kirk, Bones, and Spock or some combination of the three to beam down to an idyllic alien world that actually turns out to be a hostile death trap where something horrible will happen to ramp up the drama of the plotline. Of course nothing could happen to the stars of the show so there would usually be some ensign, part of whose uniform consists of a redshirt, who would beam down with them and inevitably he or she would be killed by a plant, turned into dust, have all of the salt sucked out of their body, or something else just as horrific and often vaguely ridiculous would happen to them.
Andrew Dahl is fresh out of the Academy and about to embark on his first cruise aboard the Universal Union Intrepid, the flagship of the fleet. While waiting to board he runs into a few other new crew members of the Intrepid. There is the spunky Maia Duvall, the rich Jimmy Hanson, the opportunistic Finn, that’s his name not his nationality, and Hester. They all have rather interesting backgrounds, well except for Hester he sort of comes into his own later on. As the four settle into their new duties aboard the Intrepid they all notice some rather peculiar behavior from the other crew members. For instance everyone tends to avoid the senior crew, and they do a really good job of it. It’s almost as if they could sense beforehand when the Captain or First Officer would turn up. The scarcity of more experienced crew members means that there is plenty of opportunity for the newest four to participate in the away teams. On the missions groundside and to the miscellaneous space station things get even weirder. The normally at least competent senior officers make fatally rash decisions and the more experienced crew members harbor some very strange superstitions about who will die or survive away missions. As fellow redshirts succumb to ice sharks, giant flesh eating ground worms, harpoon wielding maintenance robots and exploding heads the four figure out that away missions are near suicide and understand all too well why the rest of the crew works so hard to avoid the senior officers. Andrew is not content to just go along and hide from the Captain and First Officer for the entire cruise. He decides to actually do something, or try to do something about the peculiar circumstances on the Intrepid. Remember Laslo Hollyfeld from Real Genius, the hermit like character that lived in Mitch’s closet and won all of the sweepstakes? Well Intrepid has a kind of tragic Laslo haunting it who may have some answers if Andrew can only track him down.
John Scalzi is not the first to mess around with the concept of redshirts, remember Sam Rockwell’s character in Galaxy Quest for one example, but nobody’s ever fleshed out the concept as thoroughly as this. The writing is witty, the characters likable and the plot line unfolds much as you would expect, to a point. About halfway through the story starts to veer into uncharted territory, the story gets less comical and more thought provoking, by the end of the novel it’s downright touching. This is a smart book, which I guess it has to be. If you base a whole book on a cliché you have to cross your t’s and dot your i’s, people will be looking, examining even. What looks at first to be just a fun read shifts into some rather interesting philosophical territory, but Scalzi manages to get deep without bogging down the narrative. Even at its heaviest the text is still light and easy flowing if that makes sense. I went from laughing to crying without quite noticing it. Redshirts exceeds expectations, it’s even inspirational. Of course that may be partially because it was five o’clock in the morning when I finished it and I had to be up in another two hours. I didn’t intend to read the whole thing when I noticed it pop up in my Kindle around one thirty last night, couldn’t sleep, but once I got rolling I wasn’t going to stop. Which I guess is a recommendation in itself.