Home > Clement's Game > Science Fiction Round 31: Redshirts

Science Fiction Round 31: Redshirts


I like a good parody.  I am also a hard-core Star Trek fan, so Redshirts, by John Scalzi, is an amusing novel. It turns out, this book has been reviewed by Phil Plait (aka the Bad Astronomer), but I’ve got a few words for it myself.  So let’s boldly go.

The cover is very dramatic.  If any books must die, I assume this one dies first.

Yes, the cover is very dramatic. If any books must die, I assume this one dies first.

The Redshirt Phenomenon

Before we get into the plot, let’s consider the humble redshirt.  He goes out on an away mission, and somebody forgot to tell him that the air wasn’t breathable.  Or that you really shouldn’t fire your pulse pistol at the land worms.  Or that you should watch out for ice sharks.  Or unhappy locals.  Or Klingons.  Or what-have-you. The redshift is the guy who dies (often in the first five minutes) just to demonstrate how dangerous the situation is for the protagonists.

Star Trek is notorious for this, with the red-shirted security personnel being a common target.  Hence the trope. On the other end of the scale, main characters like Kirk and Spock have Plot Armor, and, as such, are generally impervious to just about everything.  Even if they end up dead, they tend to get better.  (With an exception for falling bridges, but we’ll save that for the movie.) The novel Redshirts is about exactly this phenomenon… from the perspective of the redshirts in question.

Let’s Get Meta

Oh.  My.  Goodness. The story rapidly gets meta, as our heroes gradually realize that they are the minor expendable characters in a really bad TV series.  Most of the crew is in the habit of avoiding the senior officers, for fear of being drawn into a probably-deadly Away Mission.  The impossible science solutions are supplied by a box that goes “ding” when there’s stuff.

Our friendly lead redshirt, Andrew Dahl, decides that this body count thing is terrible.  And he doesn’t want to get killed when the Narrative next impinges on his highly futuristic reality.  He gets his friends together, along with one of the nigh-immortal main characters from the TV show that’s ruining his life, and proceed to time-travel back to the present day.  To talk to the people writing the TV show, and ask them not to kill off so many people in such stupid ways.

I love this.  It’s a delightful criticism of some of the silly aspects of episodic TV shows like Star Trek that use unnecessary deaths to add drama.

For bonus points, the meta goes another layer down.  At first, it looks like what TVTropes calls “No Inner Fourth Wall” — the interior fictional universe is aware of (and has people traveling to…) the outer fictional universe, which isn’t aware of the reader.   And then the outer fourth wall goes down, too, as Andrew Dahl starts counting up his near misses with death… and concludes he’s the protagonist of somebody else’s story.  Well played.

So many metafiction tropes pop up, I won’t bother listing them all.  Make yourself a bingo card, and read the book.

With A Little Mood Whiplash

Some of this occurs. While much of the tale is played for laughs, there are several sections that are deadly serious.  We see a widower whose wife was killed defending an ambassador, and he grieves, trying to understand the Narrative and why she had to die.  We see Andrew Dahl mad about the Narrative wiping out one of his friends, and we have some clever, risky actions taken for the sake of a comatose accident victim.  The light-hearted puzzlement contrasts with the fact that for these people, redshirts are real people dying, and we see the TV show’s screenwriter agonizing over the characters he’s killed.

And that’s something the original Star Trek rarely shows.  There was one episode where a newlywed was killed, and the widow got to be upset at the end… but mostly, the deaths are all about making Kirk angry and so forth.  And, often, utterly pointless.

Redshirts does better.

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  1. 2014/05/05 at 6:30 pm

    I also reviewed this book on my blog. I though the plotting was a bit thin myself, but the parody aspect was very funny and well done.

    • michaelbusch
      2014/05/08 at 8:05 pm

      Having read some of Scalzi’s other books, I agree that his worldbuilding and plotting aren’t as tight as they should be. But he does parody and humor well.

      And his more recent books are better than his earlier stuff.

  1. 2014/08/30 at 6:10 am

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