Death of (Several Thousand) Ensigns – Redshirts by John Scalzi

What surprises me most about John Scalzi is that it has taken me so long to read one of his novels.  I read his non-fiction book Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded a year or so ago and loved it.  Scalzi was smart, erudite, and hilarious.  I looked at Old Man’s War and The Android’s Dream several times at both work, and the library, but never bit the bullet.

After following Scalzi on Twitter some months ago, amongst the promise of nude buttercream  frosting pictures (long story, don’t ask) and stuck with him because of his frequently random, funny thoughts.  A solid addition to my Twitter line-up, but I still hadn’t read any of his other novels.

That has now changed.

Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas
John Scalzi
320 Pages
Tor Books
June 5, 2012

Redshirts is a novel that I really have no business liking.  For one thing… I’ve always hated Star Trek.  No matter which iteration… movies, TV, video games, whatever… I’ve never enjoyed any aspect of the franchise (well, except for the most recent reboot by JJ Abrams… that was fun!) and I don’t typically enjoy a lot of traditional science fiction (Arthur C Clarke being a lone exception).

But Redshirts… is so much fun that I just have to love it.

I’m going to warn you now… heavy spoilers from this point on.  And, despite recent studies showing that spoilers don’t necessarily detract from the enjoyment of a story… Well, fuck that noise.  I hate spoilers.  They’re annoying and detract from my enjoyment of the story.

HEAVY
F’N
SPOILERS
BELOW

Seriously, spoilers ahoy.  Just sayin’.

Our story begins with Andy Dahl, an ensign who has just be assigned to The Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union.  From the get go, he notices strange things.  How does everyone in Dahl’s Xenobiology lab seem to know exactly when a senior officer is incoming?  Why is the important work always done without science, but instead with an item that looks like a microwave of some sort and is referred to, almost reverently, as The Box?

The weirdness doesn’t end there!  When comparing notes with the ensigns he entered the ship with (Finn, Duvall, Hanson, and Hester), they discover even more strange inconsistencies (and sometimes  consistencies!).

For instance, why do the same floors get damaged whenever the ship is attacked?  Why do the ship’s officers come back from “away missions” (that is, missions on hostile, alien worlds, missions to derelict ships overrun with killer robots, etc.) while the ensigns do not.

And what in the cool blue hell is an ice shark?

After several close calls, Dahl and his friends start making a concerted effort to avoid away missions (unless an officer named Kerensky is there… he seems more apt to be injured, which may or may not save an ensign or two from death).

At this point, Dahl and his fellow ensigns set up a plan.  They want to track down a yeti-like man named Jenkins who seems to know everything that happens on board the Starship Intrepid.  But when they find him, things are worse than they thought…

Jenkins reveals that they are part of a world that is directly affected by the plot of a sci-fi television show from 2012.  And worst of all?  The show wasn’t even that good.

As would anyone… the ensigns refuse to believe it.  And who could blame them?  Television hasn’t even existed for hundreds of years… how could a crappy show from the stupid ages possibly have any affect on them?

But as time goes on, and more of their friends fall victim to what Jenkins has labelled “The Narrative” (i.e.: a plot twist from the show that will invariably leave an ensign dead, Kerensky injured, and the rest of the crew miraculously unharmed), Dahl and co. realize their days are numbered and concoct a plan to go back in time, stop the shitty writer from killing them off, and return to their time triumphantly… and alive!

The first problem: they have less than a week to do it… because The Narrative had already set up that in their Universe, time travel will kill anyone if they stay out of their timeline for more than a week.

Of course.

While much of the book is funny up to this point… when Dahl and his rag-tag crew of ensigns (and Kerensky… since they’ve got to bring an officer to ensure their survival) arrive in 2012… the real humor begins.

This ends my long-winded plot explication.  A lot more happens in the final third of the novel, but… you’ll just have to read the book to find it out what.

The events that take place in Los Angeles are my favorite. They’re funny, touching, and a lot more real than most of what occurs on the Intrepid.  And the three codas at the end of the novel?  Well… I loved ’em, which is in direct contrast to many of the reviews I’ve read so far.

The codas, told from the POV of a different “real world” character, are the most philosophical, funny, and imaginative parts of the book and I think they really allow Scalzi to give his themes a stronger emotional punch in ways that couldn’t be as successfully explored in the ridiculous universe that Dahl and his friends existed in.

The favorite of these themes comes up in the first coda.  What sort of responsibility does a writer have to his characters?  Does a writer have to treat a fictional character with respect?  Should an author be allowed to kill off characters on a whim, even if it doesn’t affect the story in any way?

The codas are thought-provoking and provide a much-needed glimpse into the real world of the novel.  Additionally, the first coda is absolutely hysterical, and reads like one of Scalzi’s Tweets (or blog posts).

As I said before, I have almost no direct knowledge of Star Trek.  I’ve never seen any of the movies (well, except for the recent reboot which I loved), and I’ve only sat through a handful of episodes of any iteration of the popular TV series.

Despite this, I feel I was able to enjoy a large number of the jokes (thanks Futurama audio commentaries!), and the book itself felt like a complete entity, even if I couldn’t tell the difference between a horta and a tribble (OK, I know those… once again, thank you Futurama audio commentaries!).

So, even if you’re not a fan of Star Trek… pick Redshirts up.  There’s humor, heart, adventure, and death by ice shark.  What else is there to a good summer read?

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