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.

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