When John Scalzi’s novel Old Man’s War garnered rave reviews, I was intrigued and read it; unfortunately, the novel didn’t resonate well with me. In Old Man’s War, a galactic battle is fought by elderly humans who have been given new combat bodies. It was an interesting concept, but the old men and women behaved like young people who hadn’t benefited from the experience of maturity. The writing was clearly aimed at the genre science fiction market (on a comparison-continuum, I would place it much closer to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers than Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (which would be my pick to read if you’re interested in military science fiction)).
Redshirts (2012) won the Hugo Award and the Locus Award, so I thought I’d give Mr. Scalzi another try. I’m still not a huge fan, but I did enjoy portions of the novel. Redshirts is a bit of an odd mash of parody, comedy, and drama.
Any science fiction geek worth their salt knows the fate of the unknown extra — the red shirt — in the original Star Trek series: the red shirt would be killed, and the series’ stars would face danger, but survive. This is the starting point of the novel: the main characters in the book are secondary characters; they will all die because their reality is based on a poorly written television show, but their eventual deaths will be more poignant because they are recurring, albeit background, characters that have ties to the star-characters.
One character researches and discovers the metaphysical abnormality (of their universe having been created by the production of a TV show), and a mission is launched to head back in time to 2010 to convince the creators of the show to stop killing them off. This sets up an inconsistency that doesn’t quite work for me: the TV show did not exist in the history of the fictional universe but, when they head back in time, they meet the actors, a writer, and a producer of the show in a forth wall storyline (there was some hand-waving explanation regarding the plot-point, but it felt specious. The fourth-wall element was interesting, but it was difficult to suspend disbelief at this point: the plot seemed to stretch thin whenever a significant plot-point materialized). There seems to be an attempt by the author to bring some philosophical depth to the novel, but it came across as melodramatic, philosophy-light.
The novel was written in what I would term ‘genre-standard’: clunky prose and dialogue, some juvenile humor, and a lack of character depth (perhaps this was purposeful, but it was disappointing). The beginning of the novel, in particular, was uneven and could have used some extra editing. The writing never improved to a particularly high level, but I either got used to it, or it steadily improved, because I began to enjoy the story, particularly when the characters journeyed back in time. The story ended quite abruptly; purposely, with an additional ‘fourth wall’ interpretation. There are three ‘Codas’, which don’t add much to the novel; nevertheless, they are provocative and intriguing.
I’ve read some reviews that claim it is a very humorous book; I found some sections mildly entertaining, but it certainly wasn’t among the most amusing, or witty books I’ve read.
The novel is apparently going to be adapted for television (how ironic!), and I think TV might be a better medium for the story than the book-form: at times it felt like the book was written with TV in mind.
Redshirts is a pleasant summer genre book.