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Book Review: Redshirts, by John Scalzi

This was an entertaining novel-length Star Trek joke, but... a Hugo? Really?


Tor, 2012, 318 pages

Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, and Andrew is thrilled all the more to be assigned to the ship’s Xenobiology laboratory. Life couldn’t be better...until Andrew begins to pick up on the facts that (1) every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces; (2) the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations; and (3) at least one low-ranked crew member is, sadly, always killed.

Not surprisingly, a great deal of energy below decks is expended on avoiding, at all costs, being assigned to an Away Mission. Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely transforms his and his colleagues' understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is...and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.

Okay, John Scalzi didn't write Redshirts to take a shot at Scrivener fanboys. But when in the first Coda he goes off into "John Scalzi writing as a fictional character but c'mon we all know that is totally John Scalzi's voice" land, the set-up for the rant about Scrivener, echoing similar comments on his blog, just had me feeling like I'd gone from reading novelized Star Trek fanfic to novelized Whatever fanfic.

John Scalzi is clever, but he thinks he's really, really, super-duper extra extremely clever, and that's a lot of clever to pack into one book.

So, don't get me wrong, I liked Redshirts. Fun. Entertaining. Quite funny at times. And yes, rather clever. Though clever more in a "Look at what I'm doing, isn't this cute, and you can feel clever too by getting all of the in-jokes (which are pitched low and soft)" way, rather than, say, a mind-blowing, genre-elevating, Big Idea, Hugo award-winning way.

Which is probably why I read this book with my eyebrows constantly going up and down. Because as the metaphysical pretension became outright self-indulgence, I just kept thinking... "Yeah, this is fun, but... a Hugo? Really?"

"Sooner or later the Narrative will come for each of us."

The main characters are crewmen aboard the Universal Union starship Intrepid, the flagship of the fleet, captained by square-jawed Captain Abernathy, who is always seen with his excruciatingly logical Science Officer, and a good-looking but dim astrogator named Lieutenant Kerensky who has a disturbing history of surviving the most horrible near-death experiences and then being back on duty practically overnight. Meanwhile, the entire crew has clued in to the fact that anyone who is stuck on a mission with one of these three is a dead redshirt, and so much of the activity aboard the Intrepid revolves around avoiding the attention of the staff officers, and especially, avoiding Away Missions.

Ensign Andrew Dahl is a newbie aboard the ship, and once he figures out what's going on, he also figures out that he is most likely the next redshirt who's going to be eaten by Borgovian land worms or ice sharks or vacuumed out of Deck Six or killed by space vampires.


So, Redshirts is really, really meta. It's not even a little bit subtle, either. I mean, once Dahl and his friends realize what's going on, they start researching early 20th century Earth television and refer to Star Trek by name.

Scalzi is not the first author to write about fictional characters discovering that they are fictional characters. And he knows it, and he makes sure you know he knows it, continuing his see-how-clever-I-am metaness by having other characters, whose minds are blown by the meta, researching and mentioning by name everything from Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo to Jasper Fforde.

Dahl eventually deduces that not only are they characters on a TV show, but the TV show isn't even real — it's actually a fictional creation in a novel!

Whoa, Scalzi, you are sooooo clever!

"I mean that you and I know that in this universe, God is a hack," he said. "He's a writer on an awful science fiction television show, and He can't plot His way out of a box. How do you have faith when you know that?"

Snark aside, Redshirts was amusing. The characters are Scalzi's usual likable assholes tossing zingers at each other while eventually delivering heartfelt moral epiphanies. But most of the humor comes from "spot the genre reference," and much of the humor is diluted by Scalzi making sure that dimmer readers don't miss the reference by having every dialog continue for a beat or two longer than necessary. ("Borgovian land worms" = "Dune," gettit? Hahahah gettit?)

There is a lot of self-referential humor, about science fiction, about Hollywood, and about writing. I want to say Redshirts is a love letter to sci-fi genre fans, but after reading the three codas — each one written in a different tense, each one exploring another level of meta in the story — it feels like Scalzi is trying a bit too hard.

Yes, I admit it, I am... puzzleddismayedannoyed that this book won a Hugo. Not because I don't like John Scalzi, or because I don't think he deserves to win a Hugo. But frankly... for this book? Really? This book was the best science fiction novel published in 2012?

Good God man, have we lived and fought in vain?

(Doodz, that was meta! Didja gettit? Didja gettit?)

Poll #1941268 Redshirts

Have you read Redshirts?

Yes, and it totally deserved a Hugo!
Yes, and I liked it, but a Hugo? Really?
Yes, and I didn't like it.
No, but now I want to.
No, and I'm not interested.

Verdict: I liked Redshirts, but it's a novel-length Star Trek joke written by and for nerds of a particular feather, and like a lot of humorous science fiction written as metafictional social commentary, it's not likely to age well.

Also... a Hugo? Really?

Also by John Scalzi: My reviews of The Android's Dream, The God Engines, Agent to the Stars, and Fuzzy Nation.

My complete list of book reviews.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 31st, 2013 10:13 am (UTC)
It sounds like this book won't translate well at all in non-English speaking country, mostly because some SF classics never really had success (in France, Star Trek is not a reference at all, except maybe for the last movie).
Oct. 31st, 2013 10:52 am (UTC)
Yes, Redshirts is very strongly tied to American pop culture. I doubt it would even be amusing to anyone not familiar with Star Trek and TV sci-fi in general.

(P.S. Hey, you're back!)
Oct. 31st, 2013 05:53 pm (UTC)
I took a break from LJ because it was eating my life and RL was demanding. Now that I've moved and changed jobs, I'm back.
Oct. 31st, 2013 02:08 pm (UTC)
My thoughts exactly. None of it is new - the fourth wall was breached many times, and Star Trek is a franchise, for Jack's sake.
Oct. 31st, 2013 04:55 pm (UTC)

I thought it was awesome, for the same reasons I thought Galaxy Quest was awesome. I love trope skewering when it's well done.

Is Scalzi really really clever? This is the first time EVER that I have read characters do the "I get it now--we're in a story!" thing, and not wailed in agony and fought back the urge to throw the book across the room. Redshirts is the only book I can think of that goes there and makes it work. If that isn't clever, what is?

I found the spirited first half more entertaining than the meta let's-go-beg-the-author-to-spare-us second half, and I really thought the first coda should have been as brief as the other two to work, but otherwise I was very very satisfied, and was glad to be able to renew it at the library so I could read it to The Redhead during our coming road trip.

I've read two of the other Hugo nominees, Blackout (super awesome) and 2312 (good, but not really my thing), and don't feel like either of them were cheated. I have Throne of the Crescent Moon checked out right now, and we'll see if I think that one should have won.

Bottom line: I live for delightful romps. Redshirts is a delightful romp.
Oct. 31st, 2013 07:25 pm (UTC)
Of the two I would have voted for crescent moon because yaya awesome fantasy deeply immersed in non western history and mythology, but yeah liked this too, at least the non coda parts I actually read.
Oct. 31st, 2013 09:00 pm (UTC)

Like I said, I haven't yet read that one. Check my November Bookpost at the end of net month for followup...I note that it's the first in a series, so if it's good, we can rejoice that there will be more.
Oct. 31st, 2013 07:44 pm (UTC)
I thought the entire Hugo slate this year was some weak-ass tea.
Oct. 31st, 2013 08:58 pm (UTC)

Well, then it isn't such a problem that Redshirts won out over weak competition, is it?

Seriously, I loved both Scalzi and McGuire/Grant's entries, and love Bujold so much that I'm saving her book until the *next* Vor universe book comes out, so that I always have one to look forward to. This is also the first year I even bothered to look up all the Hugo nominees and make an effort to identify their books (Ahmed and Robinson, in particular, were completely new to me), so if YMMV, it's not surprising.
Oct. 31st, 2013 07:19 pm (UTC)
Read and liked the book but totally skipped all the codas they did not hold my attention at all...
Oct. 31st, 2013 08:55 pm (UTC)

Seems to me, the last two codas were almost the point of the whole book. The first one was sort of necessary to get there, but it was too long and definitely weighed down the rest of it.
Nov. 1st, 2013 07:55 pm (UTC)
I enjoyed it and thought the codas gave it depth it would not otherwise have.

As far as the Hugos go, I thought the slate this year was fairly weak and I am not surprised it won. I think it would have been much less likely to win in a different year.

I personally voted for it second after 2312, but I can think of other books published in 2012 that I would have ranked above it if they had been on the ballot. The Killing Moon by NK Jemisin and Railsea by China Mieville come to mind.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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