Jun 14 2012 3:00pm

Redshirts: Of All the Metafiction in the World, This is the Metafictioniest

One of the things I pride myself on is an ability to put a book down. Doesn’t matter how exciting it is, how gripping it is, when I need to stop reading it, I stop reading it, dagnabbit. It comes of years of riding on the New York City subway, which is historically where I’ve done a good chunk of my reading. Under those circumstances, you have to cease reading when you get to your stop, regardless of whether or not you’re in mid-chapter, mid-sentence, or mid-plot twist.

As result, I got pretty good at putting a book down, no matter how entranced I was by it. Heck, George Pelecanos is one of my favorite writers, and I put his most recent book down when I reached my stop and didn’t get back to it until the next time I happened to be on a train.

I say all this because I couldn’t put John Scalzi’s Redshirts down. Goodness knows, I tried. I got to my stop, and I had to get up and get out of the train so I could get to where I was going.

But that was delayed, because I had to find a bench at the subway stop and sit down and keep reading Redshirts.

Eventually, I got to the end of a chapter, and I did put it down and continue with my day, and then I dove back into it on the way home. On the way back, I could put it down by virtue of having finished it before reaching my stop. Small favors.


My initial impression of Redshirts was that it did for Star Trek fiction what Galaxy Quest did for on-screen Star Trek. But Scalzi takes it one step further from what GQ (and The Adventures of Captain Zoom in Outer Space, and the Peter Jurasik/William H. Keith Jr. novel Diplomatic Act) did. People aren’t mistaking a TV show for “historical documents”—instead, the TV show is actually warping reality itself. Where the Thermians mistook Galaxy Quest for real events, The Chronicles of the Intrepid actually have an effect on future history. Every time there’s an episode of the TV show, it plays out in reality on the Intrepid in the far future, radically messing with events.

We, of course, don’t find this out until later, and it’s the unfolding of the narrative that provides most of the entertainment in Redshirts. Our main character is Andrew Dahl, an ensign newly assigned to the Intrepid, who soon realizes that things are really really weird on board the ship, that being sent down on an away mission is suicide unless you’re one of the bridge crew, and also that the bridge crew tend to heal remarkably quickly from injury. Plus, they do lots of silly things that don’t make sense given the technology available to them, like make personal reports to the bridge during a crisis instead of just instant-messaging one’s findings, plus there’s the “magic box” that seems to fix everything—mostly.

One particularly crazed crewmember named Jenkins (whom I mostly thought of as Lazlo from Real Genius) is the first to figure out that they’re playing out episodes of an old TV show, and he eventually manages to convince Dahl and several other of the “redshirts” on board that they’re going to die.

The metafiction pours on gleefully thick from that point, like hot fudge on a yummy sundae, as Dahl and his merry band of redshirts—joined by the ship’s pilot Kerensky, whose presence is necessary because his 21st-century analogue is a main character and therefore can get set access—travel back in time to the set of The Chronicles of the Intrepid to try to keep from getting killed.

As a long-time writer of Star Trek fiction (and current rewatcher of Star Trek: The Next Generation), I found Redshirts incredibly entertaining, because it plays with so many of the tropes of science fiction TV and shines a light on many of their absurdities. But it also comes with an awareness that those tropes are there for a reason (people make reports directly to the bridge because a conversation between two people is more interesting to watch than one person reading data off a screen). Those tropes have become so ingrained in our consciousness that the reader immediately recognizes them and enjoys the fun being poked at them. Hell, the title itself comes from a derogatory term used by fans to describe the security guards who always got killed on Star Trek landing parties. You could almost retitle the book TV Tropes: The Novel.

As a long-time fiction writer, the novel hits on one of the great subconscious fears of writing fiction: that the characters we torture and damage and maim and kill are actually real. Nick Weinstein, the head writer of The Chronicles of the Intrepid, gets this rather nastily shoved in his face.

What’s great about this book is the breakneck pace. That’s why I couldn’t put it down—Scalzi keeps the plot moving quickly and amusingly, thanks to crackling dialogue, funny situations, and tight prose.

The final bit of the novel gets a bit too bogged down in duplicate characters—a problem exacerbated by Scalzi having a bit too many characters as it is (and with too many similar names: Duvall and Dahl, Hanson and Hester)—but it’s still entertaining as all heck.

The only real problem with Redshirts isn’t a problem with the novel itself, exactly. The tale that ends on page 231 is excellent, and with a very nice little mess-with-your-head bit that would’ve been the perfect way to end the book.

Unfortunately, Redshirts is 314 pages long, with pages 232-314 taken up with three codas. I totally understand why Scalzi felt the need to write these three stories (and he eloquently explained his rationale on his “Whatever” blog), but ultimately I think they were a mistake, as they sour the experience a tad. For starters, the first coda is a series of blog posts by Weinstein which have the rather unfortunate distinction of reading pretty much exactly like Scalzi’s “Whatever” blog, and this is the first time that the metafiction feels like it’s bleeding over into self-indulgence. The second coda is in second person, which is difficult to do without sounding pretentious, and Scalzi doesn’t quite manage it. The only one that comes close to working is the final one, about an actress who played a redshirt whose onscreen death had long-ranging ramifications in the future real history.

These codas feel like they should have been an optional extra set of things on a web site somewhere (the literary equivalent of DVD extras). They don’t add enough to the book to justify forcing the reader to, in essence, outstay the joke’s welcome.

Which is too bad, because Redshirts is an excellent joke. The novel is funny, thought-provoking, funny, delightful, funny, and did I mention it’s funny? It’s a story that makes fun of space opera television in a way that—like Galaxy Quest before it—works both if you love Star Trek and Stargate and the rest, and if you hate them with the fiery passion of a thousand white-hot suns.

Besides, it inspired a hilarious Jonathan Coulton song. What’s not to love?

Keith R.A. DeCandido is the author of somewhere in the vicinity of 50 novels, the most recent of which is Goblin Precinct, the latest in his series of high-fantasy police procedurals. He’s also written dozens and dozens of novels, comic books, and short fiction based on Star Trek, Farscape, BattleTech, Doctor Who, Serenity, Andromeda, and StarCraft, so he knows his space opera. So there! Read his Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch here on, and check out his web site for more niftiness.

That Neil Guy
1. That Neil Guy
I thought THE SAME THING about Jenkins!

I can hear Val Kilmer's voice in my head, speaking reverently, mysteriously, about "Hollyfeld..."
Chris Long
2. radynski
I really liked the Codas, or at least the second and third. The first one was just okay. The part I really hated was how it ended with Hanson. That was one step of meta too many for me. The Codas helped take the bad taste out of my mouth, and remind me why I enjoyed the book so much.
That Neil Guy
3. Dan Someone
Jenkins was Hollyfeld in my mind as well. Totally.
Chris Palmer
5. cmpalmer
I think my biggest mistake in reading Redshirts was reading the four teaser chapters a while back. I loved them and my mind kept filling in possibilities for the rest of the book. When I got the book, I blazed through it in basically one day and what happened after the first four chapters was... about what I imagined, but not as surprising, funny, or quirky as I expected. Aside from the "just kidding" moment, the three codas are really what redeemed the book for me.

BTW, Scalzi namechecks many of the movies and stories that played around with the same ideas, but the ones that it was closest to in my mind were two short stories from the 1970's called "Visit to a Weird Planet" and "Visit to a Weird Planet, Revisited" by Jean Lorrah and Willard Hunt. In the first, a trans-dimensional transporter mishap swaps the crew of the Enterprise with the actors from Star Trek where they confront the idea that they are someone elses fictional creations and even meet their "creator" Gene Roddenberry. In the second, you find out what happens to the Star Trek actors as William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Deforest Kelly (maybe others? It's been a while) are transported to the Enterprise in the same incident. Sound familiar? The one thing I definitely remember from the second story is Nimoy being excited about finally seeing what's in that viewfinder thing at the bridge science station.

EDIT: Actually, the second story was by Ruth Berman and there is a page with a link to it here:
Michael Ellis
6. mkellis
The first coda was my least favorite, though it did get the biggest laugh from me, when Weinstein responded that no, switching his writing program would not fix his writer's block.

The third coda, I loved.

Overall, I like Redshirts less than I like some of Scalzi's other works, but it was well done, funny, and I suspect will hold up well in re-reading.
Keith DeCandido
7. krad
cmpalmer: I can't believe I forgot about "Visit to a Weird Planet" and its sequel. *hangs head in shame*

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Michael Grosberg
8. Michael_GR
I had a similar impression of Redshirts while reading it but my overall verdict is somewhat less favorable. I really liked it (with one caveat) until the moment we found the reason for their universe acting like it does. Now, not long ago we had a similar movie, Cabin in the Woods, where the characters became aware that someboy's messing up with their reality and decisions to force them to conform to genre conventions. With Cabin in the woods, the revealed explanation was not particularily ingenious, but it was, at least, based on events transpiring in their own universe. My biggest problem with redshirts is that the reason Scalzi decided on, that they find they are a TV show, is a crap reason. It's Last Action Hero, all over again. And no Scalzi, you don't get points by namedropping (and dismissing) LAH inside your novel. Finding they are in a TV show was just lazy and Scalzi pretty much ran out of cool ideas the moment this was revealed. The codas felt like filler materials: having run out of ideas, the writer felt compelled to puff up the slim volume a bit with some "artsy" content. But they felt out of place in a novel whose first half was one big joke.

Now my caveat, and it applies to Scalzi's entire output: His writing is swift and his dialogue sparkles, but for some reason he is completely uninterested in writing descriptions. Now I know, many readers don't like long descriptions, but Scalzi never describes anything at all. There is not a single physical description of any person, object, ship, alien race, article of clothing or technology in the entire novel. Reading Scalzi make me feel like I'm floating in a vacuum. Sure, I could just imagine the relevant Star Trek / Galaxy Quest item (My Queeg was Allan Rickman, not Spock), but I believe it is the author's responsibility to supply me with the visual component of the narrative.
That Neil Guy
9. James Kenison
I was dissapointed too. Redshirts began with an interesting question--why do minor crewmen in Star Trek die so frequently? Unfortunately the answer (the narrative) is obviously the real reason that it happens in Star Trek. We already know that. I was hoping Scalzi would come up with an unexpected explanation.
Lis Riba
10. lisriba
Count me as another reminded of Laszlo Holyfeld.

Regarding the codas, I did observe that was where the book finally managed to pass the Bechdel test.
That Neil Guy
11. S.M. Stirling
'twasn't me who cowrote DIPLOMATIC ACT. Nice article, though, otherwise.
Keith DeCandido
12. krad
GACK! Got the Peter Jurasik book mixed up with the James Doohan book. And you'd think I'd remember William H. Keith Jr.'s name.....

Sorry 'bout that, Steve, and thanks for the kind words. :)

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
That Neil Guy
13. DHoip
I think for my money, the book was way too short. The codas didn't do much for me, I can't even remember the 2nd one. And the 'narrative' did seem like a get-out-of-jail-free card.
While I truly enjoy John Scalzi's works (I have re-read Old Man's War so many times that it is fraying), and I really enjoyed Red Shirts, I was hoping for something a little deeper and longer.
That Neil Guy
14. DHoip
And on a second note (I am forgetfull when commenting) @ #8, my Queeng was Allen Rickman as well!
Meredith Peruzzi
15. MeredithP
Two and a half years late, oh well.

I liked the first coda. Maybe because in my head, I was enjoying the writer's descent into madness, even if it was ill-portrayed on the page. But it was enough to spark a delightful mental image that I proceeded to warp further.

Oddly, I didn't like the book itself quite so much. Yes, it was fast paced, but it was so damn forced. It was fun, sure, because I enjoyed the presence of the tropes - but some of them got beat over the head a bit too hard.

Ah well. It was at least fun. And what does Scalzi care what I think - he got a Hugo and a Locus for it!

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