Monday, June 22, 2015

Redshirts - A review

Disclaimers and notes: this is the second book by John Scalzi, I've read - I didn't especially enjoy his first novel OLD MAN'S WAR - in particular because of the lack of believability and 'urgency' in some of the secondary characters who seemed to exist solely to depict a single vision of a - rather stupid - viewpoint and to be proved wrong violently by circumstances.  I bought REDSHIRTS to support "Tor day" - as I don't agree with the calls from some sf fans for the boycotting of Tor books.

REDSHIRTS was nominated for the Hugo for best novel in 2013 and won.

Apparently this is one of the many (quasi-imaginary) injustices to have raised the hackles on the backs of the loony right-wing 'sad-puppies', and the even  loonier neo-fascist 'rabid puppies' .

So my expectations were, I might not like REDSHIRTS that much, but I would be disliking it for reasons that had nothing to do with it being 'left-wing'  given that my reading of OLD MAN'S WAR with its 'conflict = honour aliens' and its 'annoying earth diplomat' being killed mercilessly for disagreeing that the only interaction with the aforsaid aliens could be a fight' elements - hadn't positioned the author in my mind as namby-pambly social justice seeking left-winger, just as a rather plodding writer with US right-wing views on the uselessness of pacifism.

However I liked REDSHIRTS a lot - I think it deserved its nomination in 2013.  I think its win, was a shade due to playing on the good feeling around Galaxy Quest (Hugo award winner 2000) which itself played on the massive fan, and normal human knowledge of and affection for Star Trek, but that's what we call KNOWING YOUR AUDIENCE.  Writing a book people are likely to like isn't cheating.

So - REDSHIRTS, if you haven't read it CAUTION SPOILERS but you can probably deduce from the title alone that its the story of a group of the lesser crewmen on a Star Trek like starship, the ones who in the fan jokes go on the away missions and get killed, whereas the bridge crew often nearly die but always miraculously survive.  And you'd be right - but John Scalzi takes it two levels further than that.

Our heroes (the Redshirts) aren't just the underdogs of a Star Trek like ship, they're the underdogs of a Star Trek like ship which is what it is entirely because of a low-budget star trek rip-off TV series being filmed in our time, *and* for when that starts to create very very awkward metaphysical problems -

- illustration of perhaps the biggest awkward metaphysical problem, I was concerned with:

[ If an author like me, in "The Redshirt Universe" hereafter TRU, wrote a story as below:

"Next weekend I win the lottery, and then spent my lottery winnings developing a time machine to go back to me now and give myself (secretly in an envelope I didn't notice being put in my bag yesterday, the lottery numbers I will find in my bag when I look in a minute...."

What stops him infallibly finding the data?   Why is it only one specific fiction (with time travel) that becomes real?  Wouldn't it be likelier that the REDSHIRTS should travel back in time not to the real past in which their show was being made, but only to their fictional past in which "The Chronicles of The Intrepid" wasn't on TV but "Star Trek" was? 

If this were not so : Every-time someone in "TRU" (Trumans?) wrote a story LIKE the above which is not an unlikely story, they WOULD win the lottery AND time travel would be discovered.  As this would probably have occurred prior to 2010 - probably soon after H.G. Wells - how is this a timeline stable enough to give us a 'normal' 2010 in the first place?]

- Scalzi has a solution in the second further, nicely unstated twist - that sorts all that out, and without it needing to be said, ends the book - except for a series of touching and marvellous codas which deal with the effects in 2010 on three of the people who become involved in the REDSHIRTS attempts to alter their past, so that their future isn't so confusingly and unfairly violent at their expense.

The books still has some weaknesses, but its positioning as a humourous adventure, and its utilisation of some stereotypic characterisation deflects some criticism.  Even so: I found some of the jokes particularly about how the grunt 'infantry' express gratitude (only verbally, but even so!) in terms of offered sex acts, purile and unhelpful to character development, and until the final twist I was annoyed that the 'bridge crew' in the future seemed to have no introspection whereas the REDSHIRTS had somehow developed it.  But the former is a minor quibble of taste, and the latter essentially a clue that the author pays off on.  There is also a single annoying moment of authoral smugness "Then they all died. Nah only fucking with you" - which seemed to me ill judged (but I accept humour is the hardest thing with which to please everyone, and I was genuinely amused and entertained by most of the book.)

So RECAP - 8/10 Funny, worth Nominee in 2013.  Probably wafted to its win on a wave of ST and GQ feeling, but that isn't horrible left-wing block voting.

I'll be reading more of Mr Scalzi I think.


Andrew Hickey said...

I thought you'd like Redshirts -- the metafictional aspect seemed to be the kind of thing you'd enjoy.
Of Scalzi's other works, I suspect you wouldn't especially like most of them, as they're mostly in the Old Man's War universe and much the same kind of thing, but you might like Lock-In and its prequel novella Unlocked (Lock-In is a near-future murder mystery which seems equal parts updating of Asimov's Daneel Olivaw stories and comment on disability), he did a humorous novel called Agent To The Stars which I've not read yet but which people say is very Redshirtsish (and which is available free on his website -- ), and you might like The President's Brain Is Missing, a short story he did a little while ago.

Site Owner said...

Thanks Andrew - I think Lock-in is my next port of call on the Scalzi Coasts. I'm trying to get my 'review writing' going a bit more here, next up for comment probably Philip Purser-Hallard's "The Locksley Exploit" which I'm halfway through, and which is so far excellent.

Andrew Hickey said...

Yeah, I still need to write my review of that, and of your King In Yellow, and of Liberating Earth, and and and...