John Scalzi, Redshirts, ISBN: 9780765316998. Tor, June 2012.
Reviewed by Maya Chhabra.
John Scalzi’s latest outing, the satirical and fast-paced Redshirts, is almost the perfect beach read. Though the climax involves time travel, nearly every character has an identical double, and the premise is delightfully meta, Redshirts is never hard to follow, and while gruesome deaths, grievous bodily harm, and general sense of impending doom pervade the text, it is rarely bleak. Doom impends gleefully.
Some centuries in the future, Andrew Dahl joins the crew of the Intrepid, the Universal Union’s preeminent starship. He rapidly notices that the laws of physics, biology, and indeed logic are superseded by the need for constant drama–and “drama” usually entails the death of low-ranked crew members like himself. They are living in a Star Trek knock-off, and a poorly scripted one at that.
Thinking “Screw this, I want to live,” Dahl and other Redshirts travel back to the present day to stop the TV show that controls their fates. There follows a series of briskly-plotted, consistently funny, occasionally moving adventures. The sense of humor is sometimes juvenile–a gag about running to the bathroom after eating burritos is especially pointless–but more often the jokes are genuinely amusing. Scalzi takes full advantage of his fictional screenwriter’s ineptitude to place the characters in situations at once perilous and ridiculous.
Unfortunately, Redshirts has a serious structural flaw. The three codas, which take up nearly a quarter of the book, could have been cut with no loss whatsoever. After the main plot has been wrapped up with a perfect exit line, Scalzi spends an overlong epilogue revisiting hitherto minor characters. Although this shift in perspective adds a new dimension to already developed themes (Who is a protagonist and who is an extra? What does the grand Narrative look like from below? Do we have free will, anyway?), the final chapters are didactic and mundane, contrasting unfavorably with the funnier, more subtle writing that preceded them. In the most cringe-inducing moments, the characters in 2012 find messages from the Intrepid time travelers full of supposedly life-changing yet utterly clichéd advice.
But chop off the postscript and you are left with a tightly-plotted, self-aware comedy which may easily be read in one sitting. Unlike the denizens of the Intrepid, Scalzi’s characters are in safe hands.