52 in 52, Week 1: John Scalzi’s Redshirts

In 52 in 52, Books on June 9, 2014 at 11:08 pm


As you might have read, my partner Alice and I are doing a “52 books in 52 weeks” challenge. I’m not sure I could have picked a more different opening book than Alice did. She went with Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Rather humbling in comparison to my initial offering. I suppose they are both loosely postmodern, but any comparisons should end there. You can find her review over at her blog.

John Scalzi’s Redshirts

What do you get when you mix a Charlie Kaufman movie, Galaxy Quest, and a David Foster Wallace story? Well…maybe not John Scalzi’s Redshirts, but I needed some kind of opening to get myself started. Because it’s difficult to know exactly where to start when talking about this very funny and very self-aware novel.

I started with the above-mentioned references because if I were to use the “hey that sounds like” examples used in the novel — by the way, they are actually used in the novel itself — then it would sound like I was cribbing notes. Which Scalzi might not disapprove of, really: he seems perfectly willing to dive into a whitecapped surf of metafictional and meta-media references. This is a novel that will reward a thorough knowledge of generic science fiction convention, but it isn’t quite as narrow as all that.

Redshirts is a novel about a science-fiction screenwriter named Nick Weinstein, the Senior Writer for a terrible science fiction episodic drama titled The Chronicles of the Intrepid.

“Wait”, you’re saying. “Isn’t the reference to ‘redshirt’ about Star Trek? About disposable extras whose sole purpose on the show is to die horribly, establishing dramatic tension and the threat of that episode’s enemy?” Well, yes, you’d be correct. But the title gives it all away: what author, for example, would pen a novel specifically about a funny-but-ultimately-forgettable phenomenon common to a few species of televised galactic adventures?  No: Scalzi, aware that you are already aware (and why else would you be looking at the book unless you knew of the reference) is playing a shell game with you. The artistry of his particular game is alternately blunt and deft, but as an experimental work, it is on the whole quite satisfying.

Redshirts is “about” (please forgive the quotation marks) the eponymous redshirts, the nameless characters on television shows. Normally living in the wings, emerging only to die and thus establish the relative immortality of the primary actors, these figures are given centre stage in this work. We’ve seen gestures toward this recently before, most hilariously in Galaxy Quest‘s “Guy” (brilliantly played by Sam Rockwell), who — more so than the other characters in the show — was aware of the metafictional plotting and arc for every story. His reasoning was simple: as the least important character, his job was to die.

The details of the primary story aren’t particularly interesting, nor are they supposed to be. The various adventures of Ensign Andrew Dahl and his friends  (which often happen off-page) exist largely as a framework for discovering the role they are meant to fulfill. That idea — of filling roles — is really the main thrust of this novel. Whether grappling with the hand of fate or imagining that people have alternate lives, in some other dimension, Scalzi submits his characters to multiple metaphysical crises. The first of these — that which occupies the first 2/3 of the novel — revolves around their role within a television show.

You’re all extras, but you’re glorified extras, Jenkins had told them. Your average extra exists just to get killed off, so he or she doesn’t have a backstory. But each of you do. He pointed to each in turn. You were a novitiate to an alien religion. You’re a scoundrel who’s made enemies across the fleet. You’re the son of one of the richest men in the universe. You left your last ship after having an altercation with your superior officer, and you’re sleeping with Kerensky now.

You’re not just going to get killed off, Jenkins told them. It’s not enough for a television audience just to kill off some poor random bastard every episode. Every once and a while they have to make it seem like a real person is dying. So they take a smaller character, build them up long enough for the audience to care about them, and then snap them off. That’s you guys. Because you come with back-stories. You’re probably going to have an episode devoted to your death.

Once concluded, this portion of the novel could have been a stand-alone piece of literature. Not particularly interesting, but funny. But Scalzi goes one step further, and takes us into the minds of the people who are the “real life” analogues of the fictional puppets. This section of the novel is itself divided into three sections, organized as a “Coda”, and comprising the final third of the work. It is divided into First, Second, and Third-person voices, each an experiment in the experience of being aware that your very ideas represent possible other lives. For the most part, this is comical, as in the aforementioned Nick Weinstein’s Scrooge-like confrontation of the ghosts of characters he has written and summarily killed.

You’re a decent enough writer, Nick. But you’re lazy.
(motions toward crowd)
And most of us are dead because of it.

Come on, that’s not fair. You’re dead because it’s an action show. People die in action shows. It’s one of the reasons it’s called an action show.

(looks at NICK, then points to a face in the crowd)
You! How did you die?

Ice shark!

(turning to NICK)
Seriously, an ice shark? What’s even the biology on that?
(turns back to the crowd)
Anyone else randomly eaten by space animals?

Pornathic crabs!

A Great Badger of Tau Ceti!

Borgovian Land Worms!

(to REDSHIRT #4)
I didn’t write the land worms!
(to FINN)
Seriously, those aren’t mine. I keep getting blamed for those.

That’s because you’re a senior writer on the show, Nick. You could have raised a flag or two about the random animal attacks, whether you wrote them or not.

It’s a weekly science fiction show–

It’s a weekly science fiction show, but lots of weekly shows aren’t crap, Nick. Including science fiction shows. A lot of weekly science fiction shows at least try for something other than mere sufficiency. You’re using schedule and genre as an excuse.
(back to the crowd)
How many of you were killed on decks six through twelve?

Dozens of hands shoot up. FINN turns back to NICK, looking for an answer.

This third section is also occasionally sweet and poignant, as in the concluding Third Person chapter, which shows the very real effects literature and art can have on people not connected to it in any logical fashion. I’m not entirely convinced by these experimental pieces at the end — I enjoyed their whimsy, but not always their artifice. The switch to a careful, measured voice after several hundred pages of postmodern humour was jarring, though not always unpleasantly so.

I liked Redshirts quite a lot. I was initially concerned the pacing and the humour would suffer at the hands of the high concept, but my fears were misplaced. Scalzi doesn’t seem particularly interested in “solving” the question of whether his fictional creations are really real — and thus “really die” when they are killed — so much as he is interested in scrutinizing the interplay between fate and choice, and the many directions that dynamic can lead one into. In this respect the high concept was well chosen, but it is deliberately misleading, as it is wrapped in a superficial, jokey metaphor. Mileage may vary for whether you buy into the added depth or not, but I’d say “give it a go” to any science fiction fan, or fan of postmodern humour.

  1. I love the fact you were also able to reference Galaxy Quest in this review, Alex!
    I don’t normally read a lot of science-fiction books, but now I am going to put this on my list to read. Can’t wait to read your next review :)

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