Thursday, October 15, 2015

Red Shirts: Light-Hearted Poke at Sci-Fi and a Fun Read

Book Review: Red Shirts by John Scalzi

Imagine, if you will, a universe in which fictional characters brought to life on the television screen live real lives some time in the future, and their real lives are affected by the plot lines of the fiction written in the television series. That's a rough paraphrase of the theme behind Red Shirts (2012), a science fiction novel posited by screen writer John Scalzi, based on the Star Trek universe.

In the Star Trek universe, characters who wear red shirts (uniforms) are usually the expendable characters, usually are the first ones to be seriously injured or killed. And so it is in this story. In fact, this is element is key to the story.

Only, the main characters in this story don't inhabit the Star Trek universe per se, they inhabit a ripoff universe of Star Trek that was never as well developed nor as well written as Star Trek, just adopted liberally from its basic premise.

In their real life universe, the main characters serve aboard Intrepid, the flag ship of their version of the Federation (not called the Federation, of course), and Intrepid has an unusually high incidence of deaths. Furthermore, the deaths occur not among all levels of service but of the lowest ranking service members - the red shirts. The mid-level service members get injured a lot but survive, often treated by miracle cures and are ready to serve in the next away mission in amazingly short times. And this comes to the attention of new red shirts who arrive to replace the dead crew members.

I won't get into all the details because that would involve spoilers. But the new red shirts do their due diligence and do their best to solve this great mystery. And John Scalzi explores both the concept and its solution in  brilliant and amusing ways.

Part of the fun of reading Red Shirts is being in on the inside joke of the demise of red shirts as a long time fan of Star Trek. That has always been a curious tick of the show, the tendency of those wearing a red shirt to not survive the episode. So reading the story is like playing out the fantasy of taking this idea to its fullest extent.

Scalzi is a great and imaginative writer. His characters have fulsome dimensions and the dialogue is real and sensible. His narrative and pacing is impeccable. That all comes from his experience as a screenwriter for Stargate: Universe.

As much as I enjoyed the whole read, my favorite bit comes at the very end of the story (before what amounts to the epilogue), the end of Chapter 23 and the entirety of Chapter 24 (before Coda I, Coda II, and Coda III). It's a fun tongue-in-cheek, pulling-your-leg wink after a long, fun read:
And that's just what he did, until the day six months later when a system failure caused the Intrepid to plow into a small asteroid, vaporizing the ship and killing everyone on board instantly. 
No, no, I'm just fucking with you. They all lived happily ever after. Seriously.
Seriously, if you're into science fiction and Star Trek, give this book a read. It's an entertaining, light-hearted take on the genre and an fascinating exploration of the idea of red shirts and their role in the series.

(By the way, I don't consider the quoted material a spoiler, because it doesn't spoil the ending of the story or its outcome in any way. It's just a great example of Scalzi's writing style and the fun of the book.)

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