Book Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

Book Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

If this book doesn’t bring out your inner nerd, then you clearly lack the nerd gene, end of story. Reading Redshirts, I couldn’t help but wish that I’d watched more Star Trek episodes in my youth — despite clearly recalling that I never did enjoy the original Star Trek all that much.

Redshirts is funny and surprisingly touching, and certainly the most original writing I’ve read all year. (Yes, I know it’s only January 6th; I still mean it as a compliment).

It’s the year 2456, and being a crew member of the Universal Union’s flagship Intrepid is not a career move with a whole lot of job security. Junior crew members seem to die on a regular basis, particularly whenever they accompany senior officers on away missions. Their deaths are gruesome, horrible, bloody, and sadly unavoidable. In fact, the crew have taken to hiding whenever the senior officers are about, in order to avoid encounters that may lead to death, or they rely on unproven ideas such as that only one crew member ever dies in the company of a certain officer — so if one person has already met their death on a given mission, the rest will be safe if only they manage to stick with the officer. Life kind of sucks, and death seems to be lurking right around the corner.

When Ensign Andrew Dahl is assigned to the Intrepid, it seems like a plum assignment — until he and his friends, also new to the ship, notice just how weird thing onboard truly are. People die in ridiculous ways (Borgovian Land Worms! Ice Sharks! Killer robots with harpoons!). At key times, pieces of previously unknown information just seem to appear in their minds. Everyone freaks out about away teams. An elaborate tracking system warns certain crew members when a senior officer is en route, at which point those in the know take convenient coffee breaks. When a scientific problem seems impossible, a mysterious machine called The Box is ready to spit out a solution within the designated time frame, usually only minutes before cataclysmic disaster is sure to strike.

Dahl and his four colleagues are doing their best to avoid away missions, but it’s only a matter of time before they get caught in one of the death-inducing assignments… and really, they’d rather not get blown up or eaten. As they start putting clues together, they encounter Jenkins, a former science team member now hiding out in the ship’s cargo tunnels. Jenkins has a crazy theory — but given events on the Intrepid, his craziness might just be the only explanation that fits.

Jenkins’s theory? The reality of the Intrepid is being warped by events occurring during episodes of a sci-fi television series from the early 21st century. He gives an ominous warning: “Avoid the Narrative.” As Dahl and friends dig deeper, they come up with a desperate plan to rewrite their own reality by changing the TV series they seem to be living. Will it work? I won’t ruin the fun by revealing anything further, but suffice it to say that this wacky space odyssey takes on all the tropes of space opera TV serials and does them up to the nth degree.

John Scalzi’s writing is smart, funny, and full of insider jokes and references sure to warm the hearts of fanboys and fangirls everywhere. As the characters try to make sense of the rudimentary technology and information systems available in 2012, we’re treated to gems such as this:

Kerensky grabbed the phone and read the article sullenly. “This doesn’t prove anything,” he said. “We don’t know how accurate any of this information is. For all we know, this” — he scrolled up on the phone screen to find a label — “this Wikipedia information database here is complied by complete idiots.”

Little moments throughout the book led to irrepressible giggling on my part. The plot itself is so clever and mind-bending that I could only stop and admire how crazily convoluted it had all become, and yet with its own internal logic that literally defies the laws of physics as the heroes figure out a solution to their reality-challenged existence.

Redshirts ends with three codas, and they are a nice touch indeed, adding a human element to the story’s wrap-up that is sweet, sentimental, and completely fitting.

If you enjoy science fiction, have a basement full of Star Trek memorabilia, or ever became hooked on a TV show that features warp speed and space battles, you simply must read Redshirts. I haven’t had this much fun since finishing my Big Bang Theory viewing marathon. Geek heaven!

This book is my first encounter with John Scalzi’s writing, but I’d love to read more. Have you read other books by John Scalzi? Which book do you recommend as a starting place?

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