Recently Eris and I were talking about dealbreakers, things that ruin a story for us and make us drop a book. One of the things she mentioned was pointless death being something that made her run for the hills.
Appropriate, I suppose, that right before that conversation I had started reading Redshirts, a book wherein the “pointless” deaths are actually the entire point of the plot.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the terminology, a “redshirt” is “a stock character in fiction who dies soon after being introduced. The term originates from the original Star Trek (NBC, 1966–69) television series in which the red-shirted security personnel frequently die during episodes. Redshirt deaths are often used to dramatize the potential peril that the main characters face.” (thanks, Wikipedia!)
It is almost impossible to talk about this book without spoiling the hell out of it, because so much of what makes it work is essentially a giant plot spoiler. However, I will do my best, because Redshirts is one of the funniest, most entertaining science fiction books I’ve had the pleasure of reading.
Andrew Dahl has just gotten an enviable assignment on the Universal Union ship Intrepid. However, there’s just one small catch: the crew has an unusual habit of dying horribly on away missions. Andrew and his fellow ensigns make it their mission to figure out what the hell is going on and how to stop it.
One of the things I love about Scalzi’s writing is that it’s always very clear. There’s not the same level of technical jargon and obfuscation that you see in a lot of other science fiction novels, and he does a good job of making the things fairly easy to understand. It makes his stories very accessible, I think, especially for people who might like science fiction but are scared off by some of the denser SF novels.
Redshirts is no exception; it’s just as clear as his other books and moves at a good pace, introducing you to the characters and making you care about them in a very short amount of time before throwing them into the ship and its madness.
It doesn’t take Andrew and the others long to realize there’s something very fishy about the ship–not just the deaths that happen with terrifying regularity, but the way people will suddenly act completely illogically or contrary to their natures, and the way some things seem to completely disregard the laws of physics. It’s hilarious to read their reactions to this, to see them step up and say, “Okay, seriously, what the actually HELL??” instead of just rolling with it.
It’s also interesting to see the glimpses of the culture that’s sprung up on the ship because of this. Bridge positions are considered death sentences, not promotions. People very quickly find somewhere else to be if the senior officers come looking for an away team. The entire ship seems to have the mentality of “if I just keep my head down, it won’t be me.” It’s almost like they’re all living in a game of Russian roulette, and you never know who the barrel’s going to stop on, only that it will. Even though the book itself is overall pretty funny and action-packed, there is definite tension throughout the first third because of all of this.
Not to mention, the “pointless” deaths do pack a punch. Although the characters who die are small in the grand scheme of things on the ship, they were important to someone. And one of the things we see is people dealing with that grief and loss when it’s become so frightfully commonplace.
All that being said, the last chapter (before the three codas) is one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever read in my life. And the three codas are some of the most thought-provoking short stories I’ve ever read in my life.
If there’s one misstep, I would say it comes in the codas. One is written in second person, which is a viewpoint I think should be saved for a handful of very specific purposes. This is not one of them. It works okay, and I get why it was written that way, but personally I think it would have worked better if it had been in a different viewpoint. (Then again, I’m not a Hugo award-winning sci-fi author, so what do I know?)
Overall, Redshirts is an absolutely fantastic story, hilarious and moving and very, very meta. If you like science fiction at all (and especially if you like Star Trek) and you enjoy the craft of storytelling itself, you should pick this book up immediately.