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I loved it, but your mileage may vary
on October 21, 2012
Redshirts by John Scalzi tells the story of the support crew onboard the Universal Union Capital Ship, Intrepid, and all the perils they face on a daily basis. I've been sitting on this review for a while, partly because I've not had much time to write but mostly because it has taken me a long time to come up with the right words for it. I'm a relative newcomer to Scalzi, having heard lots about him and his various sci-fi works but having never sat down and read anything of his until Redshirts. My first impression - if his other work is anywhere near as good as Redshirts then I can see myself devouring the rest of his bibliography in no time at all.
The story follows Ensign Andrew Dahl, newly assigned as a junior scientist onboard the Intrepid, complete with red shirt. Almost immediately he notices something strange - the support crew are very good at hiding, the away missions have an obscene amount of fatalities, and the officers always seemed to survive the most horrific of injuries and are back up within days ready to face the next away mission. Dahl is determined to find out what is going wrong on this ship, before the next away mission becomes his last. This is a book that exploits the concept of the Redshirt, that guy on the away team in Star Trek that you knew was going to die because he was wearing a red shirt. It pokes fun at all those 70′s - 90′s sci-fi TV shows in a number of overt and subtle ways. Decks six through ten always suffer from explosive decompression during a fire fight, consoles on the bridge blow up in a shower of sparks every time the ship is hit by an energy weapon, you know, the little things that make sci-fi TV unique. Redshirts is a book that feels more like a tribute than a parody - I found the whole story heartwarming, and never condescending. There are a couple of problems with the story, the first being that the whole story feels like a running gag and by the end you are just looking for the next punchline. The other is that the entire story feels like an in-joke, and I feel like anyone who hasn't ever watched those 70′s - 90′s sci-fi TV shows will be excluded from enjoying the majority of the story.
Looking at the characters, it is very easy to dismiss them at first as being cardboard cut-outs. The nature of this story is to look at the Redshirt concept, so every main character plays a stereotypical Redshirt who is trying to avoid their likely fate of either dying on an away mission or on deck six. There isn't a great deal of depth or complexity to these characters, but this has been done deliberately, fits within the context of the story, and has been executed perfectly. For those who love their characters, it will mean the book is less than accessible for about the first 30%, but once you get to the first major plot twist it all makes sense with the characters taking on extra layers of complexity because of the bounds by which they personalities have been artificially confined. That said, despite these characters being perfect for the story Scalzi wanted to tell, they are just lacking, and to be honest I can't remember any of the Redshirt's names except for Ensign Dahl and Jenkins!
The writing style for this whole story feels like a script, which again fits in with the context of the story. This can be jarring to read during the early chapters, especially during some of the rapid-fire dialogue that goes on between the characters. Almost every line of dialogue is followed by `said Dahl' or `said Jenkins' or `said...' for whichever character just spoke. As I said, just like a script / screenplay. I'm not sure if this is typical of Scalzi's writing, or if he just wrote it that way because it made sense to the story, but once you start to realize what is going on the narrative style almost becomes a character itself and I found myself laughing a few times at the way the scene was written, not just how funny the content of the scene was. After the completion of the main story, there are three `Coda's' that act almost like short stories set within the same world. Each one is written with a different point of view style - the first is written in first person, the second is written in second person, and the third (my favourite) is written in third person. All three Coda's have a completely different voice and style but they all work perfectly and help to bring this story to a fitting conclusion.
Redshirts is a book where your mileage will vary based on how familiar you are with sci-fi. I also picked up a copy of the audio book (read by Wil Wheaton, and in my opinion the best way to consume this story) so my wife and I could listen together during a long trip, and we were both in stitches the whole way. But when I played it for a friend they were less than impressed, especially since they just didn't understand a lot of the set-up material or the punchlines. Redshirts gets a 9.0 from me, but I completely understand if you cant get into it and don't like it.