Redshirts by John Scalzi. Book review

redshirtsREDSHIRTS by John Scalzi, Gollancz, 3673 KB eBook (318 pages), currently £7.99 (December 2012)

Reviewed by R A Bardy [@mangozoid]

Many have called this book a love letter to fans of Sci-Fi TV fans, especially if those fans are of the Trekkie mould, and in the main I would have to agree with that summation, but…

‘Redshirts’ starts out with huge promise, telling the story of Andrew Dahl, newly drafted Ensign aboard the good ship The Intrepid, apparent flagship of the Universal Union, and one with an enviable reputation for groundbreaking discoveries, a fearless crew, and an alarming mortality rate for those who happen to be (a) minor characters sent on an ‘Away Mission’ which invariably involves a deadly confrontation with alien forces, (b) standing next to one of several high profile ship’s officers (aka main characters) when something exciting happens, including but not limited to: rock falls, encountering toxic atmospheres, malfunctioning shuttle doors, random pulse gun vaporizations, and oh yes, attacks from ice sharks too… or (c) located on decks 6 through 12 (where the show has sets to blow up) during any kind of battle…

Into this mix, Scalzi has crafted a very good tale, the first half of which is laugh out loud funny, richly memorable, and truth be told, extremely clever and well observed… I defy any fan of Star Trek et al not to be entertained by the antics of our main protagonists, especially when everybody runs for cover as soon as one of the senior crew members comes looking for ‘volunteers’ for away missions, etc.

As with all such things though, alas eventually ‘the truth will out’, and when Andrew Dahl and his cohorts discover what’s really behind the seemingly not so random deaths, a television show driven by ‘the Narrative’ and called, unsurprisingly, The Chronicles of the Intrepid, they resolve to try and do something about it, if for no other reason than to become the masters of their own destiny.

It’s at this point that the book takes a turn into the world of meta-fiction, and for me at least, loses its sparkle. It’s hard to say much more without spoiling things a little, so before I do I’ll take this opportunity to recommend any genre fan to consider checking this out, and maybe do a little bit of homework prior to purchase. I will say that it’s very funny and very clever, and is worth reading for the first 120-odd pages alone. There are also three remarkable codas at the back, taking up the last third or so of the book, and these are suitably titled First Person, Second Person, and Third Person — I found the latter particularly memorable, haunting even…



Okay, so let’s tackle those troublesome 100-odd pages in the middle… When the redshirts (aka ‘extras’) discover they are on board a ship in a TV show, they resolve to try and fix things by stretching the bounds of credibility and using a black hole to travel back in time into the real-life world of the series’ creators, and more specifically, into the offices of Nick Weinstein, Senior Writer of the TV show.

They do this by first finding a couple of their real-life actor counterparts and trying to convince them as to their own world view: the perilous nature of their existence as a minor character on board The Intrepid, how important it is to get the writers to fix things, etc. and despite a couple of very amusing scenes the whole thing does seem to descend into incredulity, and it’s here that I felt my interest wane.

To be fair to the author, the codas at the back are well written and (again) very well observed, and they do add credence to the story, but by definition these should not be required to enjoy the story as a whole, and I fear that in this particular instance they are indeed very much an integral part of the rest of the book, and perhaps give it that added value it needs to really work.

In conclusion, I enjoyed the majority of this, and on that basis alone, would highly recommend genre fans seek it out, but as in all things, it’s a case of buyer beware, and you might want to do a bit of research first, or wait until you can get it at a knockdown price.