Review: Redshirts, by John Scalzi

>>Published: June 2012

“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.”

***

Redshirts is the thirteenth fiction novel from Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author John Scalzi. A loose parody of the Star Trek redshirt cliché—any member of the crew not part of the main cast, and usually donning a red uniform, was invariably used as away mission cannon fodder—Redshirts follows a ragtag group of “replacement” crewmen and women aboard the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, a ship with a not-so subtle prime directive-style purpose to explore and better understand the universe. Andy Dahl and his fellow new recruits quickly learn the ship’s unconventional ways, and of the likely fates that will befall them should they remain onboard.

The redshirt phenomenon has, in many ways, become an accommodating source of inspiration for several science fiction and fantasy programs such as Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and a further three or four iterations of Star Trek. Indeed, the term “redshirt” has made its way into popular culture alongside so many Buffy-isms and Marvel Comics icons. Redshirts are on-camera extras with little to no reason for existing except to die in semi-glorious fashion, thereby enhancing a program’s sense of threat and gravitas without having to sacrifice a famous face who has their name on the title screen and another two or three years to their contract.

It’s difficult to talk about Redshirts without diving headfirst into moderate spoiler territory, so consider this your ten-cent warning. If you’re looking for something fun, something light and playful that will take great pleasure in poking fun at your childhood television memories, Scalzi’s breezy new novel will strike the same notes of pleasure of Cline’s Ready Player One managed to do for the 1980s and videogame culture, though to a lesser degree of obsession. But, however much fun it is, Redshirts is not without more than a few glaring problems.

Last warning…

All right, here we go—spoilers from this point on:

Jenkins looked back over at Dahl, eyes wet. “You’re a man of faith, aren’t you, Dahl?” he said.

“You know my history,” Dahl said. “You know I am.”

“How can you still be?” Jenkins said.

“What do you mean?” Dahl asked.

“I mean that you and I know that in this universe, God is a hack,” he said. “He’s a writer on an awful science fiction television show, and He can’t plot His way out of a box. How do you have faith when you know that?”

Redshirts struggles from a very obvious case of identity crisis. As the initial parody starts to wear thin and the replacement crew begin to understand the rules of their unfortunate situation, Scalzi pulls the curtain back all the way and reveals that the book isn’t so much a parody of a bad science fiction show, but a far-in-the-future world where events have literally been dictated by the writing staff of a boilerplate science fiction television series, developed several hundred years in the past. In order to break their redshirt curse, Dahl and his friends embark on an away mission of their own design, to attempt to change their fates. A black hole is breached, conveniently (thanks to an already written script) taking the crew, in one piece, back to 2012, where they can not only meet and interact with the show’s writers and producers, but their simulacrums as well—the actors playing their characters, the dead and the still living, on the television program of their lives.

This too is parody. Don’t believe me? Watch an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. I’m pretty sure they messed with time travel on a bi-weekly basis. But I digress. Yes, this is further parody, but… it doesn’t manage to strike the same chord. The layers of parody—from the weak, glossed-over science behind the possibility of black hole time travel, to the even thinner reasoning behind a body swap/sacrifice that happens at the narrative’s conclusion—are less clever and interwoven than they are mildly amusing. This is where my analysis breaks down: I cannot tell if Scalzi is striving for the same level of meta-exploration and parody achieved by Charles Yu’s superb How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, or if he merely seeks to lampoon the “magic box” contrivances of programs like Star Trek: Voyager and Lost. To the latter, he mostly succeeds, though the book still feels tame, as if the author didn’t quite know how tight he could wrap the paradoxical ideas around one another in order to create a tapestry of impossibilities—as a story involving both time travel and (possibly) alternate universe versions of individuals most certainly would.

Redshirts almost lost me on more than one occasion. By the halfway point, the story had abandoned most of its intrigue; the trip back through time, instead of increasing the complexity of the parody, undermined the humour of the previous situations by introducing a tragic element that did not add enough to the narrative to justify its existence. What had been a sharp analysis of science fiction tropes became weighted down by the struggles of the creative team behind this television show as they wrestled with the impact their decisions have had on the crew, on their fiction-made-real. This became even more apparent in the book’s three codas, which reveal, to a greater degree, what I think is Scalzi’s intended message—that you and you alone have agency for your existence, and to hesitate, to wait for your life to simply happen around you, is to watch your life pass by without merit, without purpose, another redshirt waiting to be done away with in a random motorcycle accident, or from some unexpected cancer or disease.

A wonderful message, without question, but handled with such stark contrast to the main narrative that I found it distracting and altogether unsatisfying. But here’s the thing: I still recommend Redshirts to anyone with even a passing love of science fiction. The nods to the television programs of our youth and their many obvious faults will put a smile to your face, and the quick-witted sarcasm of the main cast of characters is always enjoyable and never overwhelms the independent voices of each character.

My issues with Redshirts are difficult to work through because, by my own admission, I’m unsure if my mild dissatisfaction with this title is because of what it is and what it is lacking, or because of what I’d hoped it would be—of the absurdity and complexity that always seemed within its grasp, but never capitalized on. Despite such reservations, Scalzi’s newest novel is an easy-going summer snack—lots of fun, but most of it remains on the surface. The deeper you dig, the greater the possibility that you might walk away frustrated.

Review: Alys, Always, by Harriet Lane

>>Published: June 2012

Charlotte Black drops back to join me. She’s one of those rare women who looks as pulled together off duty as she does in more formal circumstances. I have to admire her slim-fitting, dark cotton dress and flat, plain sandals and the few adroit bits of silver. “Are you having a good holiday?” she asks as we pause to let two teenagers drag a dinghy over the road, up towards a boatshed.

“Oh, yes. I didn’t really have any plans, and then Polly asked me down, and I’ve never quite got around to leaving,” I say with a laugh.

“Yes, it seems you’ve really become part of the family.” Something in her voice reminds me, as if I needed reminding, that I shouldn’t underestimate Charlotte Black. “What an unusual way to get to know the Kytes.”

***

Harriet Lane’s debut novel, Alys, Always opens with a young woman, Frances Thorpe, driving on an icy road in northern England, when she happens upon the aftermath of a single-car accident. The driver, Alys Kyte, wife of the famous novelist Laurence Kyte, has only moments to live. It is Frances, lonely assistant editor for the Questioner’s books section, who is present for Alys’s final words, which unexpectedly provide her with an entryway into the lives of the London book industry’s upper crust—and through them, their faults, their secrets, and their infidelities.

Alys, Always is a deceptively narrow story. Alys’s death, the event which sets in motion the entire narrative, is treated as if it is nothing more than a minor detail—a plot device to place Frances in the sights of people she at first seems to dislike or feel impatient towards, but later comes to respect and, to some uncertain degree, love.

I say uncertain because Frances’s character is distractingly uneven. From her somewhat humble beginnings as a journalistic benchwarmer, Frances’s internal monologue is, at first, bitter and full of spite towards her contemporaries; there is an air of frustration about her as she simultaneously decries the perceived ambitions and posturing of others, yet willfully adopts such tactics herself when given the opportunity to rub shoulders with Alys’s family—to get to know them on a more intimate level. What begins as a supposed desire to give closure to her family following Alys’s death quickly spirals into a strange obsession with this semi-elite gathering of spoiled-by-life adults.

Alys, Always reads at times like the soft-spoken British cousin to Stephen King’s Misery. There’s a bit of Annie Wilkes in Frances Thorpe (minus the punishing, murderous intent). The speed at which Frances transitions from comforting presence and minor family friend to a talisman-stealing, pseudo-replacement for Alys is alarming and without satisfactory set-up; though Frances’s ambitions are referenced in the book’s twilight, never do her actions feel so deliberate, so calculated as to be attributed to ambition or upward career mobility. Instead, she regrettably comes across as a lost soul who has managed to fumble her way into a position of some influence, with a family that appears, on the outside, to need her and value what she has to say more than her own family, or her employers.

With its titular character little more than a footnote to an unfortunately two-dimensional story, Alys, Always is unable to rise beyond its rather straightforward premise. Frances Thorpe is an unpredictable lead, vacillating between timid, friendly, manipulative, and desperate, with little to no reason given for the changes her character sees. Alys, Always feels less like a novel and more like a draft for a screenplay, its characters static and incomplete.

Review: Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization, by Stephen Cave

>>Published: April 2012

>>Finally got around to it: June 2012

It is nature, after all, that decrees that we must die—that causes our joints to seize up, our skin to wrinkle and cancer to strike. In order to live forever, we must, like the gods, rise above these natural limits. This therefore is the grand project of science, its answer to the Mortality Paradox: death and disease might be what nature intends for us, but we can master nature and thwart her plans. The founding fathers of the scientific method were quite explicit about this. René Descartes, for example, talked openly of seeking knowledge that would “render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature” and was considered by his contemporaries to be obsessed with the extension of life. And Francis Bacon pursued what he considered this “most noble goal” of life extension to his death—in 1626 from pneumonia, which he contracted when experimenting with the use of snow to preserve corpses. Throughout its history, science has sought to make life unending and death reversible.

***

As unjustifiably fearful as we are of the differences between us—the different colours of our skins, differences of religion, of politics, of sexuality and attraction—we, as humans, are most fearful of the one thing, the only thing, that all of us have in common: we are going to die. We don’t like it, we certainly don’t look forward to it, and given the gluttonous amount of late-night infomercials peddling stay-young-and-fit skin creams and homeopathic remedies, we’ll leap at any opportunity—no matter how deep into the red it spikes our bullshit radars—to cheat our way out of an early grave. Kevin Trudeau has made a living off of this fear (and several get-rich-quick schemes), as have so many doctors, scientists, philosophers, and religious leaders. Author Stephen Cave, however, wants you to understand both sides to the immortality coin.

Cave’s Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization is a surprisingly modest analysis of the myths, legends, and facts surrounding immortality and how the ambition to live forever has crossed all historical and cultural barriers.

By modest I don’t mean bereft of detail, rather that Cave recites his thesis without unnecessary hyperbole, presenting his topic with an academic’s attention to detail. Divided into four sections for the four families of thought regarding immortality—Staying Alive, Resurrection, Soul, and Legacy—Cave employs a wide breadth of examples—from the Egyptians, Alexander the Great, and The Epic of Gilgamesh, to more recent pioneers in the quest for immortality like Aubrey de Grey and Ray Kurzweil—to bridge the fact-fiction gap.

The strength of Immortality is Cave’s willingness to present the dark reality to the search for humanity’s literal Holy Grail. The yearning one feels to live forever is a desire born of ignorance; because forever isn’t several lifetimes, or a few dozen, even. It’s all of them. It’s billions and billions of years, until the heat death of the universe or the Big Crunch or something equally disastrous and capable of annihilating all life on Earth and every other life-sustaining rock in the universe comes to pass.

The pursuit of immortality has given rise to entire industries and religious sects, but the advancements of thought and faith and science represented therein are born from the carrot on a stick that will most likely never be within our reach. The mummification of bodies, the Christ resurrection myths, and so many similar folktales and established belief structures have promised a life beyond this one, or a continuation thereof, but we remain, to this day, without proof. In fact, only the Legacy branch of the quest for immortality holds any weight, as evidenced by the stories still told of Alexander the Great, past Presidents of the United States, of celebrities and figures of some notoriety that have lived on in narrative if not in flesh. Though arguably a form of immortality, it’s difficult, when all is said and done, to see where the benefit lies for the dead who, despite the lasting impact they’ve had on the world, are still very much worm food. And like such legacies, immortality is a story beyond tangibility.

But what of the future? Of digitally mapping the mind, uploading one’s consciousness into a clone or a synthetic avatar of some kind? That presupposes that the mind and what makes us human are memories and thought patterns. Even if that were the case, death would still inevitably take each and every one of us—a mind could theoretically be copied and mapped to the body of another, but the original, soul or no soul, would still have ceased operating and thus moved on to whatever’s next, or nothing at all.

As a natural extension of itself, of the severe longing at its unobtainable core, the pursuit of immortality is indeed a tragic one. Cave, who holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy, makes no attempts to lessen the oft-neglected gravity of the search and the likely impossibility of actually achieving immortality. In the end, he suggests the pursuit of immortality is a life-wasting quest in more ways than one. Yes, the time and energy spent on such a quest is in and of itself a waste, but there remains the possibility, far reaching though it may be, that the impossible may one day become a reality. If that were to happen, our lives would slow, grinding to a halt, because it is the fear of death, the “dread that, on our deathbed, we might look back on a wasted life” that pushes us ever forward, to realizing our true potential. “The clock that steals a second of our lives with every tick reminds us that the time to act is now. In other words: death is the source of all our deadlines.”

Immortality is never weighted down by the magnitude of its central topic, or by the almost universally faith-based set of ideologies that form the basis of Cave’s thesis. Instead, it offers a reasoned, sober series of conversations, both debunking the myths and legends of the immortality quest, and encouraging new thoughts and ideas to be brought to the forefront. Though it is likely a search for the impossible, and though our attempts to discover the key to our immortal souls remains a mystery, it’s the nature of the search that will invariably push us to one day realize our full potential—to extend our temporary, tangible lives as far into the future as possible.

Review: Maidenhead, by Tamara Faith Berger

>>Published: April 2012

>>Finally got around to it: June 2012

I hated my mother and my father. I was bored with Jen. I wanted to watch porn. I’d found this website for free, it was a service or something that delivered these video clips to your inbox. They were a minute, sometimes more, of these girls getting fucked, like what I saw in Key West but even more extreme, with headings like: asschick, teenwhore, slutgettingcock. Jeff had bawled at the door when the taxi arrived for my mom. Jody gave my mom a massive hug. My father hid out in the basement alone. I let my mom kiss my forehead. Her lips were lukewarm. I watched her struggle into the taxi, that backpack was half of her height. I got a new porno teaser delivered every day.

***

Two things became abundantly clear while reading Tamara Faith Berger’s latest novel, Maidenhead: truly, regardless of medium, smut sells—and in some cases, masks severe literary shortcomings; and I have led a very sheltered life.

Myra, sixteen years old and still a virgin, is on vacation in Key West with her on-the-rocks family—detached, quick-to-anger father, a flights-of-fancy mother, and Jeff and Jody, two siblings that barely register as anything more than background noise. Myra takes an immediate shine to Elijah, a Tanzanian musician with Rastafarian sensibilities and a passion for marking his territory. Elijah is much older, mysterious and predatory in his ways. When Myra returns to Canada, Elijah and his “partner” Gayl follow, sensing in Myra a willing participant for their very physical (and abusive) sexual games. What follows is an economically written exploration of teenage lust and sexuality paired beneath the twin conceits of slavery and revolution, omnisciently commented on by the disembodied Statler and Waldorf-like stylings of Myra’s friend, Lee, and Gayl.

The good: Berger’s a strong writer with an excellent sense of pacing. Maidenhead barrels along at a quick clip; the focus never veers too far from Myra’s increasingly raging sexual obsession and the impact it has on those around her. The single greatest achievement of Maidenhead is Berger’s ability to sell the spiral Myra seems so eager to travel to the bottom of without it feeling forced or overtly melodramatic.

The bad: There’s no point to any of it. Myra, at the end, is little more the child she was in the beginning. She’s learned no lessons, embraces no change or outside-herself perspective. When in the end she states, ‘It was this totally backwards and inspired allegory about masters and slaves,’ one gets the sense she’s reciting it as a high school student would a book report for a title they were forced to read, hands bound, decision already made for them. She’s a construct for discussion, and not by any stretch a fully fleshed-out character. No one in Maidenhead, as a matter of fact, qualifies as anything more than an idea used to sell a thesis that sadly never comes together.

Smut sells. This is an absolute, a fact of our society. The more prevalent it is, the greater access there is to it, the sharper the addiction, the obsession, and the confusion—especially in a less-than-mature mind. Unfortunately, Berger’s exploration of this master-slave dichotomy through Myra’s sexual “awakening” and her embracing of pornography falls short of its intended impact, being less literary and more needlessly gratuitous. All shock, little substance.

Review: The Broken Universe, by Paul Melko

>>Published: June 2012

“How can he have no doppelgangers, if there are an infinite number of universes?”

“Because, first, maybe there aren’t an infinite number of universes and, second, once you start traveling between universes—me—or interacting with someone who does—you—you can no longer be parallel with any other versions of yourself.”

“What?”

“Travel between parallel universes pollutes the synchronicity of the universes. No other John Rayburn is experiencing anything of what I’ve experienced once Prime showed up with the device. My life took a radical divergence, because there can’t be any other universe where other versions of me traveled the same sequence of universes that I did. Once you start moving beyond your current universe, you become a meta-person, a meta-event, beyond what normal versions of me experience.”

***

Parallel universes—a staple of science fiction and comic book story telling. Perhaps not as ubiquitous as time travel stories, but thankfully less prone to repeating and recycling the old temporal-paradox chestnut. The cell-splitting of one universe into an unknown number is a potentially dangerous proposition—attempting to wrangle some modicum of plausibility from any contemporary science fiction narrative is difficult enough when set in one world. But managing to tightrope walk across dozens of worlds, iterating on similar themes, locations, and even characters—without completely getting lost along the way—is a feat in and of itself.

In The Broken Universe, Paul Melko takes the very wise route of using character to sell the science, and not the other way around. John Rayburn, together with friends Grace, Henry, and Casey, whom he is in love with, have a god key in their possession: an iaciorator—a device which allows them to cross back and forth between a so-far undefined number of parallel universes. Using their Pinball Wizards company as a publicly acceptable front, they recruit other Johns, Graces, Henrys, and Caseys from across the different universes to acquire wealth, help others, and stave off annihilation from the psychotic Gesalex and his Alarian associates—“singleton” exiles from another universe in which women are very much subjugated and dictatorship seems the norm. The Alarians look down on “dups”—men and women with doppelgangers spread across the parallel worlds. To be unique, a singular entity with no parallels, is, in the eyes of the Alarians, to be a superior being.

By focusing on John and his relationships to Grace and Henry, his love of Casey, and the painful other-side-of-the-coin relationship he has with John Prime—the John who first introduced him to the iaciorator device—Melko weaves an exciting, sometimes mind-bending tale of corporate deception, social justice, oppression, and in the end, war with an inter-universe Green Lantern-style police force known as the Vig.

The Broken Universe is actually the second book in a series. Having not read the first book, 2009s The Walls of the Universe, I was at an immediate disadvantage. Right off the bat, Melko tosses out specialized terminology and hypothetical concepts (and numbers—lots of numbers for too many universes to name). Instead of ramping up slowly, re-introducing the world and the science behind it in the opening chapters, he assumes readers have read the first book and are already up to speed. This is not a complaint. In fact, I admire the approach. It’s a sales gamble, to have a somewhat difficult to penetrate second book in hopes of persuading readers to step back and seek out the first in the series. In many ways, it pays off. I was able to gather enough of an understanding of the first book’s events to become entrenched in The Broken Universe’s plot and character interactions.

Where it stumbles, however, is that The Broken Universe feels very much like the middle chapter of a trilogy—the first half is spent wrapping up threads and detritus from the first book, while the second half paves the way for the confrontations that I imagine will dominate the third book in the series. This does not negatively impact The Broken Universe too much. The novel is an exciting page-turner that doesn’t wrap itself too tightly around any metaphysical lampposts, nor does it gloss over the inherent paradoxes that would inevitably present themselves if such technology were possible. Yes, I would have loved to know more about Visgrath’s villainous, torturous ways and to better understand the impact his actions in the first book had on our character’s lives, just as I would have preferred a less truncated, MacGuffin-inspired finale. But I’m not terribly frustrated by these details, because the ideas and characters presented are inventive enough to keep me on board, waiting to see what happens next.

I like to imagine Paul Melko’s office is wall-to-wall whiteboards of universe names and numbers—that even he struggles to keep the details separating each location intact. That is, perhaps, the greatest threat his story has: becoming so bogged down in its own details that it risks overwhelming new readers. A threat, absolutely, but this is also what makes Melko’s story so much fun—that he is willing to go so deep into the construction and layering of these universes that they become characterized within the novel, stepping away from simple numbers and nomenclature that define the individual universes early on.

The Broken Universe is a great deal of fun, and I’m excited to see where Melko goes next. However, I do recommend, if you are interested, picking up the first title before diving into this one. As much as I enjoyed the second chapter in Melko’s surprisingly down-to-earth epic, I know there is much that I’m missing.