“There’s something seriously wrong with this ship.” (Andrew Dahl in John Scalzi’s Redshirts)
“In all my research there’s only one spaceship I’ve found that has even remotely the same sort of statistical patterns for away missions.” (Adam Jenkins in John Scalzi’s Redshirts)
I just finished reading John Scalzi’s Redshirts, which is the June 2013 book at Three Nerds & a Book Club (a book discussion website started by Scatty, Hecate, and Isis). I was really excited to read this book, because I am a fan of Star Trek, and I love comedic science fiction that point out absurdities and hilarious content in the genres I love.
It would be prudent, perhaps, to explain the title first. “Redshirt” is a term that refers to the characters who are extras and are therefore considered expendable. They’re the ones usually killed off, rather than one of the main characters around whom the story revolves. The term is a reference to Star Trek. In The Original Series, due to the color coding of the uniforms, security personnel were among those who wore red. In later Trek series, the uniform colors were changed, with the result that security personnel wore gold, but the term stuck. The redshirts often died. Fans could even sometimes predict who was going to die; if an away mission included several members of the main cast (whose lives were protected by virtue of them being the main characters on the show) and some extras, fans knew that if someone was going to die, it had to be an extra, a redshirt.
Hence, this book. Ensign Andrew Dahl has been assigned to the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union Fleet. Very soon after reaching the ship, he and his friends realize that there’s something very weird going on. The senior officers sometimes give the crew absurd assignments, people start speaking oddly out of nowhere, and (most intriguing of all) everyone on the ship seems deathly afraid of away missions. Ensign Dahl is determined to figure out what’s going on. He and his friends investigate and have several adventures in the process of figuring out what’s wrong and trying to fix it.
This novel was hilarious. There were several times when I laughed aloud. The book reads like an actual episode of Star Trek. Fans of Trek will recognize the myriad references to the show: the dramatic dialogue, unrealistic time lines for assignments that would take years in the real world, and details that reference the weird situations that the members of Star Fleet often get involved in. Even the passages in which the characters are discussing the situation on the Intrepid read like the senior staff meetings or briefing sessions from the show. The chapter in which one character tells the others what he thinks is the cause of the weirdness on the Intrepid is absolutely wonderful. I correctly predicted the cause; it’s obvious, with hints throughout, including in the prologue, and even in the premise of the book. However, the details, the writing, and what the characters did about it were a surprise and also really fun. There are passages at the end of the novel portion of the book that further layer on the questions. Behind the humor in the book, there is content to make the reader think about life.
Appended at the end of the book are three codas titled “First Person” (pages 233-270), “Second Person” (pages 271-294), and “Third Person” (pages 295-314). They serve as a kind of epilogue to the main novel, focusing on characters other than the ones on the Intrepid. The main novel would have been good on its own, even without these codas. There were some aspects that added to the story. I think of them as enjoyable short story spin-offs from the novel. I found that, though I had been laughing throughout the novel, the codas (especially the second and third) made me tear up a bit, and I am ultimately glad they were included.
In any book that’s a comedy based on a beloved story, fans of the original can be both excited to read it and simultaneously difficult to please at times; fans often want there to be references to the canon they love, but just references without meaning aren’t enough. This book contains more than just a few references to Trek; it contains its own story that makes it enjoyable and meaningful. Still, it is very much dependent upon the original for understanding. The characters, though sympathetic and fun to read about, with several emotional moments, are not as well-developed as the ones from the stories which inspired this book. This is a book of jokes and ideas – not one with a universe in which readers will want to live or with which readers will become obsessed. It works better as a commentary, than as a stand-alone work. But I think that was the intention, so it’s a success based on what it was trying to convey, though I do think there was room for the story to be a little longer.
I would definitely recommend this book to Trek fans. Those who are not familiar with the show may still enjoy it, but may miss out some of the references that require familiarity with the canon, especially the passages in which the writing (rather than an explicit mention) is the reference or joke. Reading it is a fun way to laugh at ourselves and the stories we love, and also a way to be reminded of why (despite the sometimes unrealistic situations and dialogue) we love the stories we love. We love them because they have meaning that teaches us about the important things in life, and we want our lives to have meaning, too – even we redshirts.
 Scalzi, John. Redshirts. New York: Tom Doherty Associates (Tor Books), 2012, Ch 3, p. 50. Print.
 Scalzi, Redshirts, Ch 9, p. 102.
 Isis. “June’s Book: Redshirts”. Posted on 6 June 2013 at Three Nerds & a Book Club. Retrieved on 9 June 2013 from http://threenerds.wordpress.com/2013/06/06/junes-book-redshirts/.