Redshirts — John Scalzi

Redshirts

I’ve been meaning to read the work of mega-prolific writer John Scalzi for quite a while, and was never able to get around to it, despite having purchased several of his novels last year.

Then, by a happy chance, audible.com had Redshirts available for less than $5 during their Black Friday sale and I thought, “What the hell…I’ll pick it up.”

I went into Redshirts confident that I knew the central plot based only on the title and the synopses I’d skimmed of it a while earlier. Turns out that my assumptions only captured one layer of this impressive and fun meta-novel. I usually shy away from meta-izing things, but it feels appropriate here because the term doesn’t really capture what’s going on in the book.

Before diving into the layers that make up Redshirts, I’d like to talk a bit about the narration, which contributed to some of the meta-ness of the Redshirts experience. Wil Wheaton, who notably played Ensign Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, narrated an audiobook that gets its title and a fair amount of its content from the show he starred in as a youth. Very meta, no?

And while I usually enjoy a narrator using different voices for each of the characters, I think that Mr. Wheaton was the logical choice of narrator for the novel, and he did an excellent job of it. His voice simply felt appropriate. I can’t imagine anyone else narrating the story, and if I read it on paper, I’d probably have done so in his voice.

So what is Redshirts? Maybe it’s a quantum novel. Allow me to explain.

First, the term “Redshirt.” It’s a Star Trek term, referring to the extras who appear in episodes and are killed off for dramatic effect. The main characters are in yellow and blue shirts, for the most part, but the unknown extra in a red shirt who just so happens to go down to the planet with them — usually dies.

In Scalzi’s Redshirts, we meet a group of characters who are all assigned to the same starship, the Intrepid, and discover upon arrival that something’s amiss. Technologies that make no sense. Unnecessary drama. All-too-frequent and implausibly-violent altercations for a ship on a mission to simply explore the cosmos. Not only that, but a pervasive paranoia coursing through the crew who’ve been on the ship a while. A fear of something called the “narrative.”

The crew of the Intrepid discovers that they are not the masters of their own destiny — that they’re being written into a sci-fi TV show in a universe parallel to their own (presumably the reader’s). They are at the whim of the show’s writers, who shoehorn bad science and odd plot holes into the very real lives of the characters. During their time off screen, they live normal lives. If they happen to enter a written scene, all bets are off and anything can happen.

Unwilling to die for dramatic effect, the heroes of Redshirts decide to travel across dimensions — to Burbank — and end the TV show. They meet the actors who play themselves, the head writer, and the producer. The quantum-entangled plot-within-a-plot is an enjoyable thing to read — it’s wonderful to see characters becoming self aware. The simple elements of the story wrapped up nicely, and made for some very fun listening as I wobbled on BART trains to and from work in San Francisco.

Redshirts became more interesting after the climactic conclusion of the Burbank-to-Intrepid saga. The book’s protagonist goes a level deeper, and directly questions whether he is, in fact, the protagonist of a different story. A story, within a story, within another story. Quite fun to ponder alongside him. The conclusion gets a bit odd, and is without a doubt my favorite part of the book. I’ve spoiled enough of it in this review, so I’ll leave the details out and let you find out for yourself, should you be interested in investigating further.

This wasn’t my favorite book — by a long shot — but I’m glad I listened to it. It was straight-up fun. And sometimes that’s all we want a book to be.

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