Redshirts (John Scalzi 2012)

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Redshirts is one of them books that I’ve been wanting to review for a while. It is also one of those books which will blow your mind away. It is an example of what is called metafiction. In other words it is a novel that blurs the lines between fiction and reality. The novel revolves around the crew of the flagship Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, which is basically just like the enterprise from Star Trek. The crew of the ship begin realise that there is something off. Every away mission they end up in a confrontation with lethal forces. The ship’s captain, chief science officer and the lecherous Lt. Kerensky always survive these encounters but somehow a low ranked crew member is killed in every encounter. Gradually the crew become aware that they are in fact part of a TV show, a fact which may save their lives from certain destruction.

Up until the reveal, the work reads like a mystery set within a science fiction novel. It asks the question of why all these low ranking crew members or “red shirts” are dying and you are lead to believe that the explanation for this could just exist in universe. However it gradually becomes apparent that there is an external reason for this chain of events, namely that they’re all bit time characters in a badly written Star Trek rip off. This is when the book starts to turn into metafiction, as the characters become more aware of the rules and begin to exploit them. This cumulates in them reaching the real world, which is things get kind of weird.

To put a long story short, once the characters reach the real world they end up meeting their real life actors, examining what became of them after their bit part on the show. They even meet the show’s writer and executive producer, amongst other things. There are some interesting revelations concerning the connection between the characters and their real world counterparts. For example one crew member learns that the guy who played him was the executive producer’s son, creating drama for all involved. This leads into a clever twist in the book’s climax where they use the narrative to save the producer’s son by switching around he and his fictional counterpart.

The strangest part of the book are the three codas at the end, which are done in first, second and third person. All three serve as an extended epilogue to the book. The first revolves around the show’s writer and his struggle with writer’s block. The second revolves around the producer’s son after he wakes up, dealing his his loss in memories. This one is the most cleverly written since second person is such a rare thing in books and heavily deviates from the book’s usual third person style. The codas as a whole are quite an unusual way to end the book and can be hard to follow at first due to their focus on characters other than the central protagonists. However they did a great job at reinforcing the book’s themes, which is all you can ask for in a book like this.

To be honest, the moment I realised this was metafiction I half expected the book to become confusing and hard to follow. However it manages to make sense throughout, even after the narrative goes off its rocker during the codas which is an impressive achievement. Even as someone who isn’t a Star Trek fan, I found myself understanding a lot of the book. This is a great book to read, though it is too confusing for it to be considered a masterpiece.

SCORE: 4/5

IN A WORD: STRANGE

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3 thoughts on “Redshirts (John Scalzi 2012)

  1. I concur. I also thought it was a fun and yet odd in both good and bad ways. I found the second person part fun in a meta way, ha, but not much beyond that. The entire book felt intelligently creative and analytical in a sometimes really engaging and fun way. Good review 🙂

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