When Ensign Andrew Dahl begins his first posting on the United Union Capital Ship Intrepid, it doesn’t take long to notice that people behave strangely around the ship’s commanding officers. It doesn’t take him long to realise that they’re all terrified of being selected to go on away missions – because when crewmen go on away missions, one of them always gets killed. Dahl and his friends find they need to work out what is going on and why before their own turn as victim comes around.
Redshirts is, as the title hints, a homage to Star Trek and similar science fiction television, turning around the idea of “redshirt” characters – disposable extras routinely killed off to increase the dramatic stakes of an episode. In this novel, the redshirts are centre stage, and the would-be heroes – the Captain, the Science Officer, the Doctor – are side characters. It exists in part as a commentary on the tropes of those science fiction shows, and particularly the lazy narrative devices they sometimes resort to.
(Early on, after being given a seemingly impossible task by Science Officer Q’eeng, Dahl is introduced to The Box. No one knows how The Box works, but when they are given a job to do by the officers, especially one with a time limit, they put it in the Box, and it spits out the answer at exactly the right moment for maximum drama.)
Scalzi’s narrative becomes increasingly metatextual as the book goes on, and we delve into the how and why of these characters’ circumstances. I’m loath to spoil too much of this one (which is unusual for me), but suffice to say that the premise of the book allows him to cleverly both make use of and subvert those science fiction tropes, with a level of ironic self-awareness that makes for some quite funny moments. If anything, it’s clear that Scalzi has a strong hold of his narrative, and many times when something stood out as being too obvious or not making sense, it turned out to be a deliberate move on his part.
Considering that, and the way he keeps the story moving along at a decent pace, it’s easy to forgive him the one big plot hole that doesn’t get explained away.
Redshirts is clever, funny, and engaging – which is pretty much what I’d expect from John Scalzi anyway.