Redshirts is a humorous sf novel by former SFWA head John Scalzi. It’s also the first Hugo award winner I managed to read before it actually won the award, so that made me feel special.
The premise of the book is fairly evident from the title, but I’ll throw together an extra-brief plot summary.
Extra-brief plot summary
On a ship suspiciously reminiscent of something out of the original Star Trek TV show, a group of ensigns realize that whenever one of them goes on an away team with a member of the bridge crew they won’t be coming back.
So how is it?
I can’t write too much about Redshirts without giving too much away. I’m a definite fan of Scalzi, but judging from the Amazon reviews, lots of people aren’t. Their loss.
It would have been really easy to make Redshirts a simply one-note parody, but there’s more than that going on. It’s a fast read (I read it in one session while being creepy at a café) so it doesn’t get a chance to become too repetitive. Honestly, that’s one of Scalzi’s major strengths as a writer. They manage to write interesting, occasionally thought provoking stories without sticking around to become repetitive.
Redshirts is not just a parody of how minor characters in Star Trek were almost guaranteed to die while major characters would at worst suffer a minor injury. There’s more going on, and there’s a genuine plot here. It’s fun and perfect for fans of space opera who don’t take themselves too seriously. The whole thing kind of has a Grant Morrison metafictional vibe. The difference is that reading Scalzi doesn’t require the same kind of background in NRMs* as Morrison and Scalzi is better at endings than Morrison is.
It’s fun, it’s silly, and brings up some really interesting questions about creators and their responsibility towards their creations. There are some criticisms I’ve seen which I’ll include here for completeness even if I don’t find them very compelling.
I) I’ve seen Redshirts compared negatively to Galaxy quest a couple of times. Cards on the table, I didn’t like Galaxy quest, but I think this comparison is flawed anyways. Yes, they are both Star Trek parodies, and use some of the same jokes that are pretty much mandatory in any humorous sf, but the philosophical core is completely different.
II) People seem to be criticizing Scalzi in Redshirts and Scalzi’s writing in general for factual “inaccuracies” when it comes to the naval/military/whatever command structure. In Redshirts, it’s silly to complain about how the lowest ranked people seem to all be ensigns, since if you pay attention that’s more-or-less how it was on Star Trek as well. For the broader point, it’s fiction, and it’s science fiction at that. If faster-than-light travel is as easy as portrayed in these books, why wouldn’t the military be structured and/or operate differently? This reminds me of Vox Day’s “My fantasy wargame with orcs and trolls and wizards won’t have any women in it because that wouldn’t be realistic”. Most of these complaints seem to come from fans of military sf at its most militaristic, generally either armchair generals or actual veterans, but Scalzi’s not writing that kind of sf.
*I’m using NRM in the broadest possible sense here, to include not-necessarily-religious but still outside the normal whitebread american experience groups like the IOT.**
**If this doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry about it, you’re not part of the target audience for that comment.
It’s good for anyone looking for a fun quick read. It’s not necessary to be a fan of sf, as long as the reader has some passing familiarity with the classic Star Trek tropes there’s enough there to be enjoyable.
It’s perfect for fans of Douglas Adams, and Terry Pratchett readers who also enjoy sf should find plenty to like here. I mentioned Morrison above and it’s definitely worth checking out for fans of his work. It’s a little more lighthearted than Morrison normally is and certainly more straightforward, but it’s got enough of that flavor to satisfy.
As usual, some recommended reading for fans of this one, or books whose fans should enjoy Redshirts
The ultimate hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy / Douglas Adams
Old man’s war / John Scalzi – a “serious” book, it’s Scalzi’s take on the whole Starship troopers thing. It’s worth reading even for people who hate the whole “Marines in space kill bugs” thing, as there’s a lot going on there and it deals head on with the more problematic aspects of the genre.