Posts Tagged ‘ John Scalzi ’

Redshirts and the Hugo

Redshirts cover

John Scalzi – Redshirts

Well, yesterday we learned that John Scalzi’s Redshirts has won the Hugo Award for best novel. I’ve read more than twenty books so far this year, and that was definitely the worst one. (In fact, it’s tied for the second-worst book since I started my blog, only beating out an artless ode to fascism.) I knew when I wrote my review that I was going against popular opinion, but it still baffles me how much some people like it. The people I’ve discussed it with generally found it light and amusing, and say they liked it because they also liked Star Trek. Fair enough – those elements were enough to get me through the first 75 pages or so, but even the people who enjoyed it don’t seem to be describing a Hugo-worthy novel.

If you’re curious, I stand by the complaints in my review. Scalzi tries for metatextual jokes about Sci-Fi characters who know they’re surrounded by “bad” science, which is fine. But their own science and logic, used in situations where the “bad” science shouldn’t take effect, are even less sensible! The main point of the story is supposed to be clever reactions to a weird situation, but every reaction is predicated on something that felt wrong. The character development, pacing, and tone are all poor, as are the rushed ending and its awkward “codas” that don’t feel like appropriate follow-ups to the story.

But I don’t mind the Hugo Award too much. I knew Redshirts was likely to win it, so I’d already dealt with that. The thing that really shocked me is that Patrick Nielsen Hayden won a Hugo in the editing category. As far as I know, the award doesn’t specify which book or books factored into the award. But I doubt it’s a coincidence that he won at the same time as one of the books he edited. And while I generally have a lot of respect for him and think he deserves his multiple Hugo wins, I still feel like Redshirts should have disqualified him this particular year. Most of my biggest complaints about the book were logical errors that should have been fixable given the flexible science that the book had available. I feel like a good editor should have been able to catch them. (For example, “If your characters are going to do this thing, cut out the conversation a few scenes earlier in which they decide it’s impossible.”) This book literally made me wonder whether John Scalzi had decided to start working without an editor. For the book and the editor to both win awards both seems wrong.

Let’s hope for better results next year.

Update: I worry that I may have sounded too harsh in my post. So let me clarify.

I am a big fan of Scalzi’s blog. I also think he has done great things for the SF community, both as president of the SFWA and through his personal quests to educate aspiring writers. He’s willing to make personal stands on issues even when they cost him readers. Basically, I’m a huge fan of just about everything BUT his professional writing. Usually, I just shrug my shoulders and accept that it’s not for me. But Redshirts seemed especially bad, enough so that I’m still perplexed by its reception.

Similarly, though I can’t say I pay as much attention to Hayden, I love what his company does and what I see of him as a person when I’m pointed to his blog or Twitter. I’m glad he’s won Hugos before. I just think this year’s Hugo is connected to Redshirts, and I can’t agree with that.

I still suspect this is some sort of Emperor’s New Clothes situation. Like I said at the start of this article, all the people I’ve heard from who liked this book seemed to find it light and enjoyable. No one makes it sound like a Hugo contender. I get the impression that a lot of voters just said “He sells well, he has a big fanbase, and he’s won Hugos before. This book wasn’t bad. I guess he gets another one.”

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


The Year In Books (Part 1)

For the past several years, I’ve read a lot fewer books than I used to. Most people blame this on a lack of time, but my undoing was comic books. Comics come out on a weekly schedule, each one updating something from the last month. The system is set up to make sure that you keep up on them, while it’s easy to put off a novel for a while, since it will still be on the shelves months, if not years, later.

I realized how bad this had gotten a year ago, when my birthday and Christmas presents included almost 20 books, but I’d only read about 5 all year. I decided to make more of an effort on novels for the year.

In the end, I read 19 books in 2010. It’s not an incredible number, especially since several of them were novellas or children’s books. Considering that I did it without dropping back on my comics reading, though, I’m happy. This year I’m planning on 25-30.

Rather than going back and doing full articles on things I read in the past, here are capsule reviews. It’s still pretty long, so I’ve split it into two parts. The books I read in the first half of the year are below, and I’ll follow up with part two in a couple days. Continue reading