Redshirts is a novel by John Scalzi, published by Tor Books on June 5, 2012 and running 318 pages. John Scalzi is a name I’ve heard frequently on a literary podcast known as The Library Police. The hosts count him as one of an elite talents that they gush over regularly. Due to such high praise, I finally decided to pick up one of his novels and take it for a test drive. You can now count me in on the John Scalzi fan club because I absolutely loved this novel. Redshirts has great characters, is fast paced enough to keep you interested and is funny to boot – all while dealing with a very serious issue that pops up in television and movies: the curse of the Redshirts.
Anyone familiar with Star Trek, mainly The Original Series, starring Captain James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy, then you are aware in some form or fashion of the case of the Redshirts. Redshirts are the additional characters that will follow our main cast down to a planet for an away mission and then die a horrible death to show how dangerous the situation is. No matter the episode or how simple the story may be, a Redshirt sacrifice will eventually grace the screen. But we never get to know much about these fine folks who risk their lives day in and day out. Until now, and John Scalzi lifts the veil from their mysterious lives to show us their side of the story.
Set in a fictional universe that has at least heard of Star Trek, Redshirts is set aboard the Universal Union flagship, Intrepid. Being the flagship of such a large fleet and constantly exposed to so much action, casualties are high. But as some come to realize, maybe just a little too high. One of four new transfers introduced in the second chapter is Andy Dahl. Dahl serves as our protagonist for the story as we experience everything after chapter one from his perspective. The adventures of Andy Dahl and his friends include learning why their crew mates act so strange, why their senior officers sometimes seem to act like puppets, and of course, why so many Redshirts die on away missions.
What Redshirts does so well, in my opinion, is mix a perfect blend of humor, action, drama and science fiction into one large pot. When we reach the turning point in the novel, where everyone finally accepts what Dahl and crewman Jenkins are telling them the problem is, the story takes on a feeling of another science fiction movie that involves a change of scenery, if you will. I’ll try not to spoil it for you, though I find it tricky to navigate around subjects I want to discuss more openly! The interactions between characters and their conversations flow smoothly, never seem out of place to me and appear so natural. Not once did I feel like I was reading forced dialogue from Dahl or any of our other three ensigns.
The only issue of confusion I had with the entire story – because I always try to find one blemish no matter how much I enjoy something – is toward the end. There is an explanation of how something will work across a very large expanse of space and time and – semi-spoiler – dimensions/realities that I still have no real idea of. But then again, to be honest, I’m not sure the characters fully understood it either since it was pretty much defined as garbage writing anyways. So the entire plot point of how atoms across different time periods would cease to exist after “X” amount of days but then suddenly be reformed with their actual properties … It is techno-babble that even I was confused with. That only subtracted from my enjoyment of the story for a few moments, and I finally just went with it and trusted Scalzi to deliver in the end.
Speaking of the end, Redshirts wraps up its main story within the confines of the pages we’re given, and then makes way with what the novel calls 3 Codas. Each mini wrap-up story at the end is well done, though they are not at all equal. The first is probably the weaker of the three, but the second picks up strongly and the third Coda brings it home with a very emotional impact on how Andy Dahl and his friends impacted the lives of those around them.
John Scalzi has a new fan. Redshirts, as my first novel by the author, is one that I can see myself going back and re-reading. Thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Scalzi’s work and I look forward to reading more in the very near future. The Old Man’s War will be coming up on my radar in a few more weeks, and I hear it’s the start of something wonderful as well. Sadly, one thing I discovered while researching Redshirts, is that what seemed to be many Scalzi fans didn’t care for this particular book. Maybe I’ll see more flaws in the story and writing after reading other novels in his collection of work, but for now, I’ll have to kindly disagree.