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 fact 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 expendedon 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.
-cover and synopsis courtesy of goodreads.com
Atmospheric Analysis: The tongue-in-cheek pulp stylings of the cover of Redshirts is perfect–plus it stays just on the safe side of trademark infringement. You know you’re in for a Star Trek parody; you don’t have to worry about Scalzi getting sued.
Planetary Class: Redshirts is primarily a work of parodic metafiction. My web browser is insisting that neither of these are words, but they are, damn it.
Viability Rating: Despite its loose genre stylings, Redshirts is committed to seeing its worldbuilding through. For the most part, once we’re told the universe works a certain way, it does. Now, do I believe this world is truly viable? Hmm, I think not. But I also think that’s not the point.
Mohs Scale: Redshirts rates somewhere between a 1 and a 2 on the Mohs scale. I’m not sure if it’s a world of phlebotinum, or science in genre only, but thinking about it too hard makes my head hurt.
Xenolinguisical Assessment: The writing in Redshirts is mostly very bad.
Now, by the end of the novel–and here, I mean the very end, the final coda of three–I was convinced that the clunky prose stylings were intentional. However, rather than a clear parody of hackneyed SF writing, the exposition of Redshirts is run-of-the-mill bad commercial prose. Said-bookisms abound, descriptions are awkward and repetitious, and there’s not a single instance of unadorned dialogue. Scalzi introduces his bad prose in the very first sentence, and it establishes the artless tone used throughout the main novel:
From the top of the large boulder he sat on, Ensign Tom Davis looked across the expanse of the cave toward Captain Lucius Abernathy, Science Officer Q’eeng and Chief Engineer Paul West perched on a second, larger boulder, and thought, Well this sucks.
Of course, as I said, I eventually became convinced that the thudding prose was a conscious stylistic choice on Scalzi’s part, but I had to read through nearly three hundred pages to reach that conclusion. Though the dialogue which propels the novel forward is snappy, clever, and Whedonesque, I don’t doubt that a few readers will put this one down due to the Creative Writing 101 exposition.
Expanded Report: Parody can be a hard sell when you’re a fan of the source material.
Take, for example, the works of Lev Grossman. Many fantasy fans take umbrage with his intentional riffing on the tropes of epic and children’s fantasy. Harry Potter afficianados often accuse him of hating on Hogwarts. It doesn’t so much matter if his criticisms of the genre are right, incisive, or interesting. These fans are primarily concerned with whether his jokes come from a place of love.
Essentially, they’re scrutinizing his genre cred. It doesn’t matter if he loves Wizard Rock or Narnia–it matters if he seems to love Wizard Rock or Narnia. Geeks can be especially prone to this sort of defensiveness. After all, we often grew up in environments hostile to us and the things we love.
It’s through this lens that I inevitably viewed John Scalzi’s NY Times bestselling Redshirts. A very transparent and intentional parody of classic Star Trek, which I love, I found myself wondering again and again how Scalzi feels about the source material–even though I knew that I was setting the bar unfairly high.
Overall, I’m just not sure that this is a loving riff on Classic Trek. It’s difficult not to hold Redshirts up against Galaxy Quest, its closest analog. While Galaxy Quest included similar criticisms of Trek’s bad writing, self-satisfied stars, and corny tropes, it also did a good job of replicating what Trek always did well; by the movie’s end, it became a celebration of sacrifice, teamwork, hope for the future, and wonder in the wider universe. Redshirts never quite hit any of these notes for me, though it did remind me, again and again, that Star Trek is badly written (as Scalzi says in his acknowledgments, “Redshirts is not even remotely based on the television show Stargate: Universe . . . Indeed, I would argue that Stargate: Universe was all the things that The Chronicles of the Intrepid wasn’t–namely, smart, well-written, and interested in having its science nod in the direction of plausibility”).
But perhaps such criticisms miss the mark–maybe the author does heart Star Trek with all his heart. And to be fair, Redshirts does, in fact, do some interesting things in parodying Trek. Though the exposition is often painfully written, the dialogue is snappy. Whedon fans will love the clever turns of phrase and the characters’ geeky self-awareness. The primary, uh, narrative follows Ensign Dahl, who finds himself a redshirt on an Enterprise-esque spaceship. He and his fellow below-deck cohort realize that there is an unusually high death rate among their kind, and set out to discover why. Redshirts eventually becomes an onion-peel of a book, with several layers of metatextual narrative.
It’s undeniably clever, and the book’s rules are twisty and mind-bending in the best way. Unfortunately, I rarely found it funny or meaningfully engaging. The characters are cardboard cutouts–perhaps intentionally so, but I never really felt invested in their story and so their quest to save themselves from certain phaser-fire eventually wore thin. I thought the main narrative would have worked better as a concise, sharp short-story. In novel form, I eventually lost interest. Being clever isn’t always enough.
Nowhere was this more clear than in the first of the three codas, a metatextual exercise which struck me as painfully indulgent and yet not quite boundary-pushing enough. In it, Scalzi takes on the fictional mantle of an Author on the Internet. But I really wanted one level deeper, that moment that Kilgore Trout finally meets Vonnegut, so to speak. It never came. Disappointing.
And yet the final coda was the one that finally convinced me of Redshirt‘s worth. It’s a beautifully written interlude, one which actually reminded me of my favorite Trek novel, AC Crispin’s lovely Sarek. It gave me faith in Scalzi’s prose ability–up to this point, I had my doubts–and actually left me a little choked up.
Did it make Redshirts worth it? I’m not sure. Though many of the individual parts didn’t quite work, it’s definitely an entertaining read–and oddly challenging, too. I suspect Redshirts will work better for readers who are a little less metatext-weary and Trek-wordly, which, admittedly, is most of them.