John Scalzi – Redshirts (Book Review)

Redshirts cover

John Scalzi – Redshirts

It’s a running joke that the bit characters on Star Trek get killed cheaply, but what do they think about it? Redshirts is the story of the crewmembers on a ship very much like The Enterprise who realize that they’re always the ones to die on missions. They look for an explanation and a way to save themselves.

It’s no secret that I dislike John Scalzi’s writing style, but I still had high hopes for this. Redshirts didn’t need to be brilliant, but just the clever, well-structured sci-fi adventure that Scalzi does best. And I assumed that his writing had probably improved over the years.

How wrong I was.

Oh, it’s clever at times. Scalzi takes a metatextual nerd joke and builds a story around it that actually makes sense at times. But the characters are flat and pointless, and the writing usually doesn’t feel right for the content. Redshirts should either be a light farce that doesn’t take its situation seriously, or a psychological horror piece about people who can’t escape the force that is killing them one by one. This dallies in both extremes (some death scenes are played for laughs, while at other times characters betray each other to save themselves), but it usually ends up stuck in an awkward middle. The story is played seriously, but without the pathos it needs. And I’m never given much reason to care about anyone in the book, which makes it awkward when the story stops to give a minor character some growth.

Seriously, this is what passes for character development in Redshirts:

“Man, I owe you a blowjob,” Duvall said.

“What?” Dahl said.

“What?” Hester said.

“Sorry,” Duvall said. “In ground forces, when someone does you a favor you tell them you owe them a sex act. If it’s a little thing, it’s a handjob. Medium, blowjob. Big favor, you owe them a fuck. Force of habit. It’s just an expression.”

“Got it, Dahl said.

Yeah, I get it. Light, funny, sexually-charged banter can be fun. But this scene feels lifted from a C+ paper in a class called “Character Quirks 101”.

It’s not just the characters, though. The plot and its resolution, which seemed like another good Scalzi effort at first, eventually go completely off the rails. Redshirts jokes about the nonsensical science in Star Trek-like dramas, which is fair enough. But after establishing the bad science rules, the characters proceed to solve their problems in ways that barely follow from that! Let that sink in: Scalzi presumably meant his writing to rise above the sci-fi hackwork he jokes about, even if it was working in the same system. But instead, he makes fun of those systems, and then proceeds to do a worse job himself.

Seriously. One of the most important actions the characters take comes a few pages after they discuss the fact that it wouldn’t work. They don’t find a way around it. One of them just pops up in the next chapter and says “Hey guys, it’s time to do this.” Some major later plot points also don’t follow from the established rules. (I can’t talk about them without spoilers, so I’ll put them below in the comments.) This book is supposed to work because it plays around with sci-fi clichés in clever ways, so it’s a real problem that the cleverness fails after the first hundred pages.

Then there’s the rest of the plot. It ends abruptly, with a twist that barely makes sense. It’s then followed by three codas, named (and written in) “First Person”, “Second Person”, and “Third Person”. Each one fleshes out a character who only appeared for brief moments in the main story, giving us closure about something that doesn’t matter at all. And yes, one is written with an irritating second-person point of view, for no discernible reason other than the writing gimmick. The final coda would be a pretty good short story on its own, but in context it just reminds us of the single awkward scene its person appeared in: Witnessing a moment of growth for another character that no one cared about.

Yes, I know Redshirts is up for a Hugo award right now. I can’t imagine why. It has an interesting set-up, but it falls apart thanks to flat characters, inconsistent events, and a plot structure that barely even makes sense. Save yourself the effort.

Grade: D

  1. Ok, here are the spoiler-filled details that I didn’t want to go into in my main review. Don’t read these if you don’t want the surprises ruined for you!

    So first of all, after the characters realize that they’re at the whims of an actual television show, they have a discussion about how the show doesn’t exist in their timeline. They could presumably travel back in time to before the show started, since the timelines wouldn’t have split yet, but they can’t actually confront the people who are working on it. Then a little later, one of them announces that he’s figured out the show existed in the year 2010, so why don’t they travel to 2012 and confront the people on the show?
    Did the editor sleep through that?
    I don’t mind the explicitly-bad Star Trek logic. I’ll laugh and accept the idea that they couldn’t spend more than 6 days in the past, or their atoms from the future would get confused by some quantum vibe from the same atoms of the past. But suddenly everyone also assumed that the physical atoms of their bodies corresponded to the atoms in the bodies of the actors who played them. Atoms don’t work that way, and since the show-writers who came up with the idea didn’t know their characters had modern-day counterparts, they wouldn’t have written it in. That felt out of place.
    Or the idea that actors and their characters would be soul-mates and understand each other completely. It was just treated as accepted (and again, it didn’t arise from any in-show logic), but it makes no sense. Actors play characters who are nothing like them all the time. They certainly don’t pretend to be people who have the exact same hopes and dreams.
    As for the ending, I’m fine with Dahl’s meta-textual realization that their whole adventure, including the tv show, must actually exist within another story. Once you start breaking the fourth wall, that’s a fair place to go. But there’s no justification for his logical leap that Hanson is aware of this all and will now provide an author’s benediction. If he was right that Hanson still had an important role to play, he should have assumed that that meant the story wasn’t over yet. Instead, we got something that felt arbitrary and unnatural in our story, which ruined the reveal that this whole adventure only made sense if it was a story we were reading. And since this was the “big” ending, it was pretty disappointing.
    Some of these things may seem like nit-picking, but the bottom line is that for the last two thirds of the book, almost every major plot development made no sense.

    • Sean
    • January 23rd, 2014

    Hello. I haven’t read your post-review comment because I am still reading the book, but I wanted to ask something, and I have read the review you wrote. If you mentioned this, I overlooked it. Am I the only one noticing that he seems to (over)use something in his writing that we were all taught to avoid? Even in the short example you quoted, every single brief section of dialogue says so-and-so “said” it. I’m listening to the audio book right now and the chapter where these characters all meet is killing me. Every few seconds, Wil Wheaton (the audiobook narrator) is forced to declare who said what, over and over and over again.

    • Good point. For the most part, that doesn’t bug me. Scalzi’s writing is intentionally simple and supposed to keep you focused on the story instead of the prose. So it’s technically bad, but doesn’t seem to annoy too many people.
      I bet it would be a lot more of a problem if I were listening to an audiobook. When reading it myself, I can mentally skip over all the “he said” and “she said” phrases, but when listening to the story I will hear every word.

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