June 21, 2012

BOOKS: Redshirts, John Scalzi (2012)

Anyone who's ever watched Star Trek should be familiar with the folks in the title of Scalzi's new novel. But for the non-Trekkies: Whenever Captain Kirk and the starship Enterprise arrived at some unknown planet, he would lead a small team down to the surface. He'd usually take a couple of his top officers, and they'd be joined by some poor ensign, wearing the red shirt of the enlisted man. Guess which one is getting killed by the Slime Monsters of Vorgon Beta VI? Fans began to refer to these sacrificial ensigns as "redshirts."

Scalzi gives us a look at a Trek-like world from the redshirts' point of view. Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union, which explores space seeking new life and doing interplanetary diplomacy. Andy and his fellow newbies quickly realize that, even for an exploratory ship, the Intrepid has a remarkably high death rate among the junior members of its crew. It's so high, in fact, that some of the slightly-less-junior crewmen have begun avoiding the captain entirely, for fear of being assigned to a landing party.

Scalzi's take on the dangerous life of the redshirts is a comic delight, and he takes great pleasure in skewering all the conventions of this particular SF subgenre -- the cheesy dialogue, the scientific illiteracy, the cardboard-thin characters. When Andy and his friends finally do figure out what's really going on aboard the Intrepid, the answer is both absolutely inevitable and wildly audacious.

And that answer sets up the even better second half of the novel, in which the redshirts try to stop their own ongoing slaughter. Scalzi follows his premise to its laughably illogical conclusions, and even manages to impose a warped sort of scientific rigor on a fictional universe that never had much of it to begin with.

As a bonus, the last quarter of the book is made up of three "codas," short stories which briefly follow three of the novel's minor characters and look at how their lives were changed by the story -- turning the novel's extras into protagonists, as it were. These codas give Scalzi a chance to show off a wider emotional range than the novel itself allows, and they bring the book to a sweet and poignant end.

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