Redshirts by John Scalzi exceeded my expectations on every count; plot, concept, and characterization. I went into it a little hesitant, because I’m not really a big Star Trek fan and I had never read anything by Scalzi before. And most of all, I was unsure that the concept, which seemed amusing enough, could sustain a full length novel. How do you stay true to the convention of redshirts, two-dimensional characterization, and silly classic science fiction plotting, yet still satisfy modern readers who expect so much more from their science fiction?
I’m very pleased to say that not only was the concept worked into a clever plot, but every minor quibble you may have nagging at the back of your mind is actually addressed by the end of the book, resulting in quite a few instances of, “Oh my god, he did that on purpose! Scalzi, you clever bastard!” I actually had to throw out a good 80% of the notes I jotted down while reading Redshirts, because almost everything I thought was a fault turned out to be part of the ride. It was masterfully done, and Scalzi’s background as long-time SF writer and stint as president of the SFWA really shows. He’s well versed in both tropes and predicting how readers will react to the most subtle of cues. He walked the fine line between staying true to the tone of the source and imprinting his own personality on the story.
The one caveat is that this is truly a concept-driven book rather than a plot or character driven one. If that’s something you really don’t like, Redshirts may not be for you.
The plot revolves around Ensign Andrew Dahl and group of Universal Union crewmen who have just been assigned to the star ship Intrepid. The setting is essentially the Star Trek universe with a few strategically changed names to avoid copyright infringement. The ‘redshirts’ of Trek fame start getting wise to the fact that going on an away mission is a death sentence for anyone but a handful of important bridge officers. While most of the existing crew know this and try to cope with a mixture of denial and clever avoidance schemes, Dahl & Co shake things up and try to figure out the cause behind the mysterious circumstances that make serving on the Intrepid so much more dangerous than any other comparable ship in the Universal Union.
Only a very cursory familiarity with the Star Trek franchise is necessary to enjoy Redshirts. If you’ve caught a few classic Trek reruns over the years, you’re all set to enjoy the ride.
This is a video from last year’s W00tstock at San Diego Comic Con. It’s a skit John Scalzi wrote based on Redshirts. It doesn’t involve any of the characters from the book, and there’s no spoilers; it’s just a humorous short that introduces you to the concept.