The love of Star Trek and other classic space operas is built on compromise, and a certain amount of irony. So many tropes in these shows are stylized to the point of unreality, and things happen to punch up the story, rather than for any real reason. Especially the deaths of "redshirts," or random extras.
But what would it be like to live in that world? John Scalzi's new book Redshirts is probably the closest you'll ever come to finding out.
Redshirts isn't a straight-up satire or critique of Star Trek and similar shows — which is probably for the best. Scalzi takes some of his trademark smart, quippy characters and puts them into a Trekkian reality in which they're forced to make sense of their existence. It's one part Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, one part "Below Decks," and one part geeky nitpicking about the bad science in science fiction television. With a dash of Cabin in the Woods.
So I'll really try to avoid giving away too much, since there are some pretty fascinating twists. Here's a bare-bones plot synopsis. In Redshirts, Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union — which is pretty transparently a clone of the U.S.S. Enterprise, even down to roughly the same officers. He and the other new ensigns soon notice something weird and ominous about life aboard the Intrepid — on any away mission, at least one ensign dies. And it seems to follow a bizarre set of rules, depending on which officer you're with. The crew of the Intrepid has become very superstitious and fearful about getting involved in the officers' missions.
You can read the first four chapters of Redshirts over at Tor.com (registration required.)
Here's the passage where the new recruits first start putting two and two together about away missions:
"So, did you guys get asked about away teams?" Duvall asked, as she brought her mess tray to the table where Dahl and Hanson were already sitting.
"I did," Hanson said.
"So did I," Dahl said.
"Is it just me, or does everyone on this ship seem a little weird about them?" Duvall asked.
"Give me an example," Dahl said.
"I mean that within five minutes of getting to my new post I heard three different stories of crew buying the farm on an away mission. Death by falling rock. Death by toxic atmosphere. Death by pulse gun vaporization."
"Death by shuttle door malfunction," Hanson said.
"Death by ice shark," Dahl said.
"Death by what?" Duvall said, blinking. "What the hell is an ice shark?"
"You got me," Dahl said. "I had no idea there was such a thing."
"Is it a shark made of ice?" Hanson asked. "Or a shark that lives in ice?"
"It wasn't specified at the time," Dahl said, spearing a meat bit on his tray.
"I'm thinking you should have called bullshit on the ice shark story," Duvall said.
"Even if the details are sketchy, it fits your larger point," Dahl said. "People here have away missions on the brain."
"It's because someone always dies on them," Hanson said.
Duvall arched an eyebrow at this. "What makes you say that, Jimmy?"
"Well, we're all replacing former crew members," Hanson said, and then pointed at Duvall. "What happened to the one you replaced. Transferred out?"
"No," Duvall said. "He was the death by vaporization one."
"And mine got sucked out of the shuttle," Hanson said. "And Andy's got eaten by a shark. Maybe. You have to admit there's something going on there. I bet if we tracked down Finn and Hester, they'd tell us the same thing."
"Speaking of which," Dahl said, and motioned with his fork. Hanson and Duvall looked to where he pointed to see Hester standing by the end of the mess line, tray in hand, staring glumly around the mess hall.
"He's not the world's most cheerful person, is he," Duvall said.
"Oh, he's all right," Hanson said, and then called to Hester. Hester jumped slightly at his name, seemed to consider whether he should join the three of them, and then appeared to resign himself to it, walked over and sat down. He began to pick at his food.
"So," Duvall finally said, to Hester. "How's your day?"
Hester shrugged and picked at his food some more, then finally grimaced and set down his fork. He looked around the table.
"What is it?" Duvall asked.
"Is it just me," Hester said, "or is everyone on this ship monumentally fucked up about away missions?"
The main member of the bridge crew that we actually get to know is Lt. Kerensky, whose main characteristics is that he's Russian, lecherous and constantly getting infected with horrible diseases or beaten to a pulp or otherwise mangled — only to be totally fine a few days later. Lt. Kerensky winds up dating Ensign Duvall, one of the new Redshirts, who notes that he's good in the cot, despite having had three STDs.
If you love Star Trek, or classic space opera generally, you will get a lot out of Redshirts, and not just because of the dead-on observations and clever little inventions like the "ice shark" from the above passage. This is very much a love letter to a whole genre of television show that helped us all to dream of living in space. One of the huge unspoken ironies of Redshirts is that shows like Trek, with their manifest unreality, helped make actual space exploration possible.
And the tension between real space travel, with all of its constraints and wonders, with the somewhat cartoony version depicted in Star Trek, is the beating heart of Redshirts for a good chunk of the book. Scalzi's characters are smart and competent, and know actual science, which makes it even funnier to have them thrust into the middle of science fantasy.
And as meta as you think Redshirts is going to be — it's actually much, much more meta than that. On one level, it really is like Tom Stoppard's Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in that you see what bit players get up to when they're not part of the "real" storyline. But it's also consciously about being trapped in someone else's heroic fantasy, and how destructive and horrible that actually is. (And yes, this is clearly a metaphor for being a "grunt" in a war or hazardous mission, where someone else is going to reap all the glory.)
Metafiction often gets bogged down in deconstructing itself, or trying too hard to be clever, but Scalzi sticks to making his characters as grounded as possible in the middle of a ludicrous situation. And he follows the conceit to its end, without making an extra effort to throw any curveballs at the reader.
And yet, there are surprises, including how the situation plays out, but also in terms of some of the choices the characters are faced with. When we finally get to the bottom of what's going on with the crew of the Intrepid, there are two separate tragedies at the heart of the story that wind up being juxtaposed, and the prospect of real loss — as opposed to cartoony redshirt death — is placed at the center of the story, in a surprisingly moving fashion.
And the real meat of the story, in many ways, comes after the novel ends — you might notice the title refers to it as a novel "with three codas." Those three codas are quite long, and they're where Scalzi feels free to explore the philosophical and emotional topics his book brings up, now that he no longer needs to move the plot forward. I'm not sure I've ever read a book with that sort of structure before — a pretty straightforward, if insanely meta, adventure, followed by three lengthy epilogues that make you think about what you've just read from a number of different angles.
When you get to the end of the main novel, you'll think you've read a wildly entertaining story that pokes some good-natured fun at Star Trek and other TV space operas. And then after you read the codas, you may well find yourself with a lot more food for thought, and perhaps a lingering sense of wistfulness. [Amazon]
Star Trek screenshots via TrekCore.