[SPOILERS for a three-year-old book to follow]
Redshirts won the 2013 Hugo Award for best Sci-Fi novel, and it received a lot of buzz at the time for being a great read. I dutifully added the citation to my ‘to-read’ pile and a few days ago was able to check it out digitally from my local library. E-books are superior to print books in many ways, but one advantage of print is that you can tell simply by holding it – perhaps after a glance at the font size – how long it will take to finish. I surprised myself by starting and finishing Redshirts in a single day: a round trip to Toronto from Mississauga accounted for the bulk of it, with about an hour at home to finish it off. As you may gather from this, it’s a light read.
The story is set aboard the starship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union, a starship which takes on a variety of missions – diplomatic, military, exploration – with the common feature being that on each mission, one of the junior crew dies. Senior staff, including the brash captain and the coolly unemotional, alien science officer, are oblivious to this trend, but the junior crew certainly aren’t, all of whom find elaborate ways to avoid going on inevitably-lethal away missions. In other words, Redshirts is essentially a parody fanfic of the original Star Trek TV show. In the first half of the novel, the humour is awfully broad, and consists almost entirely of pointing out the ways in which the Intrepid and its officers don’t behave in the way we’d expect a real military craft and crew to act. The bridge chairs don’t have seat belts! The uniforms don’t have pockets! The bridge shakes, no matter where or how the ship has been damaged! Science crew are always able to come up with an answer to the problem of the moment, but only at the last minute, and they always miss something that the science officer notices immediately! This is bad enough, but the humour worsens as it gets more meta, and starts pointing out the way that the conventions of televised fiction don’t line up with reality. In real life, you see, people rarely stop to give expository speeches explaining the problem of the moment, especially to people who are already familiar with it, or to their subordinates.
These insights are hardly original: people have been making these gibes at Star Trek‘s expense since the show aired, almost fifty years ago. I remember David Gerrold making the pockets-and-seat-belts jokes in his Star Trek memoir, and that came out in 1973. The only original bit that author John Scalzi offers is a novel explanation for a notorious situation aboard the Enterprise: the fact that, whenever the senior staff walk the corridors of the ship, the junior staff around them are all hurriedly moving around them, never stopping to talk with their superiors or with each other. It turns out that the crew are afraid if they catch an officer’s attention, they’ll be ordered to join a presumably-fatal away mission, so they avoid the command staff wherever possible.
The only thing sustaining interest in the first part of the story is the question of why the away missions are so dangerous. I was expecting a different answer than the one the story eventually gives us. The superficial emotional tone of the first half of the book is lamely comic, but it’s a thin cover for a thick layer of horror. Crew on away missions die, and in terrible ways. Knowing this, the crew go to great lengths to avoid going on these missions… and this includes finding ways to ensure their fellows, not they themselves, get assigned first. This subversion of solidarity is chilling, and it only becomes worse on the missions themselves, where the crew – out of sight of their commanders – begin to actively sabotage each other, to ensure that someone else become the necessary sacrifice. The mood is genuinely and surprisingly bleak. Unfortunately, that mood isn’t sustained, because Scalzi can’t avoid having to explain why the Intrepid is the way that it is. (The burden of science fiction is that everything must have an explanation.) I had assumed, given the established tone, something along the lines of The Cabin in the Woods, a roughly simultaneous exercise in genre metafiction: the crew die as sacrifices to some alien force, and the bridge crew are complicit with this arrangement to preserve what they see as the greater good. Scalzi goes a different way: it turns out that the Intrepid and its crew are all fictional, the stars of an early-twentieth-century TV show, and its junior crew die so often because the head writer of the show is a hack and doesn’t know any other way to build dramatic tension.
With that mystery solved, the book’s second half becomes even less engaging than the first, as the story transforms from a parody of Star Trek generally to a parody of Star Trek IV. In place of dangerous away missions and ensigns scheming to make someone, anyone else get killed, we have the book’s viewpoint characters, the newly-minted junior staff of the Intrepid, travel to 2012 Burbank, California, to confront the creators of the science-fiction show that has taken over their lives. Aside from more lame jokes in the key of fish-out-of-water, Scalzi offers another interesting bit: the Intrepid crew are dopplegangers for the actors who played their parts on the series, leading to several cases of mistaken identity. Most notably, one of the crew is a perfect physical copy of the showrunner’s son, who appeared on the show briefly but then, days before the Intrepid crew arrived, had a serious motorcycle accident, leaving him mangled and brain-dead. His grieving father was about to pull the plug, but in exchange for his son’s life being saved by the deus ex machina of Otherworldly Medical Science, agrees to change his show such that the junior crew won’t die anymore. Mission accomplished, our heroes return to their world, confident that they’ll own their own destinies now, or at least as much as anyone in their situation can.
If that was all, I’d rate Redshirts as a slight read, as fanfic with delusions of grandeur. But the entire exercise is redeemed after the book proper ends. I suspect Scalzi intuited as much, given that the full title of his book is Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas. It’s those codas that pay the whole thing off. They deal with the people left behind in 2012, who are now aware that their TV show isn’t just a basic-cable triviality, but is also a machine with existential significance. In one coda, the show’s head writer battles writer’s block, as he’s terrified that if he writes about someone dying, someone actually will die. In another, an actress deals with the fact that her doppleganger was the love of someone’s life, and that when her doppleganger died, the grief almost destroyed him. And yet she, the original, is alone, and has inspired such passion in nobody. And in the most powerful epilogue, the showrunner’s son becomes aware that his body and brain had been smashed into wreckage, and that impossibly, he’s been given a second chance at youth and health… and yet his life to that point has been wasted in shallow pursuits. Of all people, he deserves the gift he’s been given the least. So what should he do, having received it?
I found the codas genuinely moving, and far more engaging than the entire novel that preceded them. Science fiction is supposed to be a literature of ideas, and these ideas – what significance do our lives have, and how should we live them? – are much more interesting than wondering why, in the future, military uniforms don’t have pockets.