November 26, 2012

To Boldly Go (review: Redshirts by John Scalzi)

RedshirtsRedshirts: A Novel with 3 Codas
John Scalzi
Gollancz 2012

The Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union, seems like the dream assignment for any aspiring Starfleet rookie. The chance to work alongside the best of the best; the most up-to-date technology; the most exciting missions. This is what Ensign Andrew Dahl has in mind when he joins the crew but all is not as it seems. No sooner has he taken his position in the science department than he begins to receive the same warning from everyone – keep a low profile, avoid the high-ranking officers and whatever you do, don't go on away missions. The second a redshirt steps off the ship it seems a grisly demise isn't far behind.

In Redshirts sci-fi veteran John Scalzi takes us on a tongue-in-cheek exploration of one of Star Trek's greatest mysteries – why would anyone on that show ever willingly done the red shirt of a junior crew member, knowing that it inevitably meant death? Dahl and his fellow new recruits initially take the rumours with a pinch of salt, putting everything down to eccentricity, jealousy and coincidence. However, the death toll mounts and it seems that the key crew members (Captain, science officer, medic, navigator and engineer) are impervious to all harm but seem to impose a death sentence on all those unlucky enough to be around when disaster strikes.

Finally agreeing that something is amiss they begin a serious investigation. It seems the Captain and his cohorts are entirely unaware of the carnage around them. Indeed the Universal Union itself sees nothing unusual about the high death rate, attributing it to the Intrepid undertaking riskier missions that the rest of the fleet. Regardless, the bizarreness quotient continues to rise. Dahl and his colleagues, upon finding themselves in peril, are suddenly aware of facts they had no way of knowing previously. They make wildly inappropriate decisions, seemingly unable to alter their reckless actions. And in a hilarious stab at TV sci-fi 'science', Dahl's department has a mysterious box into which any problem can be placed. Hit a green button and it will proceed to solve the problem with the following proviso – it will be solved with moments to spare, accompanied by unintelligible codes and glyphs and be lacking a vital piece of information which a senior officer will miraculously provide.

The titular Redshirts uncover clue after clue and finally stumble upon Jenkins, a hermit hidden in the service ducts of the Intrepid who is dedicated to unravelling the deadly mystery of what he terms 'The Narrative'. (‘80s nerd aside: when reading about Jenkins my mind continually strayed to the character Lazlo Hollyfeld in the underrated Val Kilmer nerd comedy Real Genius) At this point in the story the book is truly transformed. What was previously a warmly written paean to classic television becomes something altogether weirder, a tale so Meta that it is in danger of eating its own tail. Suddenly we are reading a tale within a tale, where writers affect the story and the story bits back. We're jumping across universes, travelling back in time and all the rules (of physics, logic and plain decency to each other) take a holiday.

Redshirts gives John Scalzi an excuse to have real fun with a tired old trope and he certainly doesn't hold back. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of Star Trek (and I myself am not a fan of the classic TV show) will take great delight in his gentle evisceration of its quirks and plot holes. Every little detail is feasted upon: why can starships do U-turns at light speed without anyone flinching, yet the slightest damage from weapons fire causes the bridge to rumble as in an earthquake? Why are the same decks always damaged in a fire fight? Why does a console always blow up on the bridge no matter where the damage was actually sustained?

Scalzi freely admits that his idea isn't entirely original. Indeed the book itself directly references other works which have used the same device of narrative intruding on reality and even in one of the three codas, has a fictional author contacting one of those real authors to compare notes. However the uniqueness of Redshirts comes from its awareness of what it's doing, from the obvious familiarity and love that Scalzi has with his genre (he is a consultant for the Stargate Universe TV show) and from the skilful way in which he develops well-rounded characters within a thoroughly bizarre universe.

Obviously the book isn't for everyone. If you like your plots to behave themselves and are prone to see insane literary devices as cop-outs then you might be disappointed. And obviously if you're no fan of sci-fi then it may lack appeal, the very notion of sci-fi screen-writing being central to the plot itself. However, if you have any love at all for Star Trek, nerd humour, bizarro fiction or novels which take delight in ripping apart narrative conventions then John Scalzi has given you a perfect gift in Redshirts.


This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. Redshirts is available now. You can read it and then watch a Star Trek film. That one with Chris Pine.  Mmmmm.  (This suggestions may not, actually, be from Cannonball himself).

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