As the saying goes about film or TV, there are no small parts, only small actors. That is, of course, horseshit. Every story has its bit players, those characters who do little more than fill in the shot, offer a terse, short line of dialogue in response to one the main characters, and generally get used at all because the plot needs them. There’s no shame in this. After all, everybody’s a bit player in somebody else’s life, right?
In the sci-fi realm, there are no more popular bit players than the usually nameless, and certainly never before seen, schmucks who accompanied Kirk, Spock, and such on away missions on Star Trek. They died at an alarming rate, you see. Given that they were usually security personnel and dressed in red, they’ve given a name to the whole enterprise (so to speak) – redshirts.
If Redshirts was just a Trek-like tale told from the perspective of the small folk, it wouldn’t be much to write home about. It’s been done, after all, from the classics (think Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) to sci-fi TV (Babylon 5’s “A View From the Gallery,” among others). What Scalzi does is both more fun and more interesting.
Yes, the main characters of Redshirts are the small folk, in this case new crew members on a starship called the Intrepid. And, yes, their lives sound suspiciously like what you’d imagine the lives of Trek’s small folk to be like. But here’s the twist – Scalzi’s characters are smart enough to figure out that something’s up. They notice the terminal stupidity of the command staff and how the more senior members of the crew avoid them at all cost. They notice that things happen conveniently and for no explainable reason (there’s even a magic box that helps solve problems).
What they realize is that they are slaves to the Narrative, which appears to literally seize control of the actions of those around them when it suits it. It all leads to only one conclusion – that they are, in fact, living in a sci-fi TV show. Worse, it’s a bad one. Put another way, the Narrative is like God and God is a hack. Armed with that knowledge, they try to do something about their inevitable fates as mission-of-the-week cannon fodder.
And then things get really interesting. Using a hoary sci-fi trope, time travel, the real crew returns to our time to interact with the creators of the show and the actors who play them. This shifts the story from one of simple parody/homage, to a deeper and more thoughtful meditation on the creative process and how it impacts people. In the end, Scalzi writes more about writing than about spaceships, pulse guns, and ice sharks.
In other hands, the lane change into meta discussions about creativity would leaden and die, but Scalzi’s breezy and direct style lets him cut to the quick, most of the time. It helps that the book is funny, too, and will have any sci-fi geek nodding her head (or shaking it in exasperation) as things move along.
This is not to say it’s perfect. In my opinion, Scalzi is at his best when he’s being light and snarky. I became a fan of his blog before I even read one of his novels and prefer the funnier stuff to the hard-core military sci-fi that’s made his reputation. There’s a point in the last third of Redshirts where Scalzi adds a serious thread to the proceedings that bogs things down a bit. He revisits this more maudlin side of things in two of the three codas (codae?) at the end of the book. I just don’t think they work as well as the rest of the book.
But speaking of codae, the first one kicks major league ass.
In the end, Redshirts is terrifically fun, entertaining, and goes just deep enough to provoke a little thought. What more can you ask for? If you’re any kind of sci-fi geek, go grab yourself a copy right the hell now. Or else the ice shark will get you!
Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas
By John Sclazi