Redshirts, by John Scalzi
They were expendable… until they started comparing notes.
Audiobook: 7 hrs and 41 mins
Narrator: Wil Wheaton
First published: January 5th 2012
Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, and Andrew is thrilled all the more to be assigned to the ship’s Xenobiology laboratory. Life couldn’t be better…until Andrew begins to pick up on the facts that (1) every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces; (2) the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations; and (3) at least one low-ranked crew member is, sadly, always killed.
Not surprisingly, a great deal of energy below decks is expended on avoiding, at all costs, being assigned to an Away Mission. Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is…and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.
I picked up Redshirts just after finishing Fuzzy Nation, because it was short, it sounded funny and interesting, it was narrated by the same Wil Wheaton, and I wanted to sample more of Scalzi’s work. As it turns out, the book more than satisfies each one of those, so I’m very lucky to have come across it.
“Redshirt”, in case you don’t know, is a word that has come to represent any generic fictional character that dies soon after being introduced, and whose sole purpose is to die in a dramatic manner, in order to show the audience that the main characters of the story face great peril, without actually killing any of the main characters themselves. The term has its origins in the original Star Trek series, where the poor schmucks who made up the security personnel were always getting killed off in the most absurd manners. To quote TV Tropes:
Their only job was to get eaten, shot, stabbed, disrupted, temporally-shifted, frozen, desalinated, or crushed into a cube. Their death would give William Shatner and DeForest Kelley a corpse to emote over, and Leonard Nimoy a corpse to, well, not emote over.
Redshirts is written from the point of view of these poor bastards, as they figure out that something is terribly, terribly wrong on the Intrepid, the Universal Union spaceship they crew. The book is filled with witty, sometimes dark humor, just I as had hoped, and the geek in me—who was raised with Star Trek—really loved the theme.
What surprised me the most about Redshirts was that, although on the surface it may seem like a simple tongue-in-cheek commentary on the absurdity of some of the plots in science-fiction shows, the novel actually has a very interesting plot, and can easily be enjoyed even by people not familiar with the Star Trek universe (that’s not where the novel takes place anyway). The three codas at the end of the book—”coda” is an English word I didn’t know until now (English is not my first language)—take Redshirts one step forward, toward meta commentary, an introspection on the process of writing, and even some deeper meanings concerning life itself, giving the novel a sense of completeness without clashing with the funny nature of the main story.
In closing, I leave you with one of my favorite web comics (courtesy of Shoebox), and a YouTube video tribute to Jonathan Coulton’s “Redshirt” song: