Book Review: Redshirts By John Scalzi

This 91Hx5ImdhzLfelt like polished fan-fiction.

Obvi­ously it’s not fan-fiction. Partly due to the tech­ni­cal­ity that it’s profes­sion­ally published, and partly because while Star Trek is refer­enced (obvi­ously) this is not a story set in the Star Trek universe. But the whole time I was read­ing the main story (there are three related codas that focus on other char­ac­ters) I just felt like this was some­thing that a fan would right.

Perhaps because there are so many refer­ences and in-jokes? The ship’s medical offi­cer is named Hart­nell for exam­ple. Perhaps because the universe this story does take place in never rose off the page to become real? Or perhaps it’s a combi­na­tion of things. While the story never falls below the level of compe­tent, it’s just not nearly as good or as clever as it seems to think it is.

For a start it doesn’t quite seem to know what it wants to be. Is it a self-aware spoof at Star Trek and the genre it spawned? Is it a meta-textual inves­ti­ga­tion of that genre? Is it actu­ally a dramatic story in it’s own right? The answer as it turns out is all and none of those things. So while we start out with some pretty broad and clunky comedy bits (the sort of jokes fans make on the inter­net) then move slowly to a more dramatic mode while randomly slip­ping in and out of meta-textual debates. It’s all a bit uneven and unsat­is­fy­ing.

To make matters worse the char­ac­ters all sound alike. This may have been Scalzi trying to be clever, because the char­ac­ters are “redshirts” and thus largely inter­change­able. But it creates a prob­lem. Because they all sound alike. And they all sound like the sort of people you read post­ing comments about sci-fi shows on the inter­net.

There really isn’t that much plot to this story and the char­ac­ters don’t develop in any notice­able way so the story while short, actu­ally feels quite padded. Far too much time with people refus­ing to believe (earlier in the story) or discussing the meta aspects in excru­ci­at­ing detail.

Oddly enough though towards the end of the story when it becomes essen­tial to have people convinced of what’s going on…everyone just accepts the notion with little more than a head shake. This is exactly the sort of plot­ting on tv shows that Scalzi has been taking digs at earlier in the story. Which makes it either really blatant or meta to the level it’s actu­ally enter­ing it’s own poste­rior.

And then after wrap­ping the story up to some basic level of satis­fac­tion, Scalzi throws a whole new layer of meta onto the scenario for… well no good reason I can discern honestly. And then to top that decides that the narra­tor needs to intrude on the story even though that hasn’t happened until this last chap­ter. Why? To make a joke. Ham handed to say the least.

And then there are the codas. Which, unfor­tu­nately, feel like the author lectur­ing me about “being all I can be” or some other such bull. Maybe that’s not the inten­tion but it was the vibe I got from all three codas.

The first one where the fictional writer of the fictional sci-fi show that some­how intruded on the fictional universe suffers from writ­ers block.  He explores this through blog­ging and sarcasm. And it turns out his prob­lem is not that when he writes people die, it’s that when he writes badly people die a poor death. He just needs to write well.


And then having again pointed out the bad writ­ing in this fictional sci-fi show (that’s clearly based on real shows) and the shal­low­ness of the redshirts char­ac­ters and behav­ior… in the final coda our view­point char­ac­ter essen­tially inter­acts with noth­ing but redshirts. Fine it’s a priest, a widower, a pushy sister etc. But they are all cliches with no depth what­so­ever.

Given that I know how well John Scalzi can write. How inter­est­ing his char­ac­ters can be. How sophis­ti­cated his world build­ing is. I can’t decide if the entire thing is just some meta-textual writ­ing exer­cise or not. It’s either too clever  or not clever enough.

But either way it doesn’t make for a good story.

Link: Amazon​.com — Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas

About Eoghann Irving

Overly opinionated owner and author of You can get updated on his posts directly on the blog here or through the usual social networking suspects. What? You expected me to say something interesting here? That's what the blog posts are for. Eoghann has often wondered if people read these little bio things we have to fill out everywhere on the internet and, assuming they do, why?