Book #16 for 2012: Redshirts by John Scalzi
So, not surprisingly, my enthusiasm for Project Bestseller List is already flagging. It’s not that 11th Hour by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro, the book I began reading after The Storm by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown, is all that bad — actually, it’s neither especially bad nor especially good — but that The Storm, a novel so turgid and plodding that it could be used as cement mix, stomped on all the enthusiasm that I’d built up for discovering what it is that keeps novelists like Cussler and Patterson (and Grisham and Sandford and Baldacci) selling books at such a consistently high level on the best seller list. I’d still like to read Baldacci at some point (at the very least his plots sound intriguing), but the prose in this sort of bestselling fiction is so uninspired that about halfway through 11th Hour I found myself desperate for something more interesting, something with a genuine creative spark in it, something worth reading not just because it appeals to the lowest common denominator of American readership. That’s how I wound up reading John Scalzi’s Redshirts.
First, a few words about Scalzi: He’s a science fiction writer with one of the two or three most enjoyable Twitter feeds (@scalzi) that I follow, especially when he gets into humorous insult wars with Stephen King’s son, writer Joe Hill (@joe_hill). His blog, Whatever, is so brilliantly written (and long running) that it’s produced two published books of essays, the most recent of which is entitled Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded. His blog entry from Christmas Eve 2011 (“8 Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Your Favorite Holiday Music“) was such a clever hoax that I posted it to my Facebook timeline. What makes it so clever is that if you actually know something about the history of modern Christmas music, you’re more likely to be suckered in by the hoax than if you know nothing at all, because Scalzi has peppered in just enough factual information to lend a certain credence to the utter bullshit. For instance, Frank Loesser really did write “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” to perform with his wife as a duet at parties, but I seriously doubt that Paul McCartney wrote “Wonderful Christmastime” because he’d bet someone that he could write a song in the amount of time that it took him to move his bowels.
But I digress. Scalzi’s Redshirts can be looked on as a kind of Star Trek novel in the same way that Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead can be looked on as a kind of rewrite of Hamlet: It’s the same story but told from the viewpoint of its minor supporting characters. “Redshirts,” as some of you are doubtlessly already aware, is a Star Trek fan term, one that’s spread to the wider world of TV melodrama, that describes those anonymous characters, usually wearing red shirts and only contracted to be in the cast of the show for one episode, who seemed to exist purely to be killed during away missions, thus sparing leading characters like Kirk and Spock, who had long-term contracts on the series, from being violently eliminated during alien encounters.
In the novel Redshirts, a group of ensigns on the Starship Intrepid (read: Enterprise) begins to notice an odd pattern of deaths on their ship. There are five people — Captain Abernathy (read: Kirk), Science Officer Q’eeng (read: Spock), Lieutenant Kerensky (read: Chekhov), Chief Engineer West (read: Scotty) and Medical Chief Hartnell (read: McCoy) — who never get killed (though Kerensky has a penchant for getting horribly injured then springing back to such perfect health that he can be on another away team mission a week later), but whenever unimportant ensigns, especially those recently assigned to the ship, accompany these officers on away missions, they commonly wind up dead.
One of these “redshirts,” named Jenkins, is so stricken by the death of his wife on one of these missions that he becomes a hermit and takes up residence in one of Intrepid’s storage rooms, hacks into the ship’s computers and starts compiling evidence that leads him to the inevitable conclusion that the members of the ship’s crew are in fact characters in a TV show, one written by hack writers who repeatedly utilize cliched melodramatic tropes that require minor characters to be killed off in about three-fourths of the episodes. He gradually convinces the other minor characters that what he calls “the narrative” is the only way to explain the absurdity of much of what goes on around them.
Scalzi acknowledges within the text that Redshirts, the novel, is part of a tradition of media metafiction that includes movies like The Purple Rose of Cairo and The Last Action Hero. But it also clearly falls into the postmodernist vein of the Scream films, where the characters are aware of the cliches that they’re acting out yet powerless to protect themselves from the often gruesome demands of those cliches. Well, almost powerless: the redshirts come up with a solution that they think might save them from what they’ve come to fear is inevitable death and when they begin to implement this solution the novel goes almost totally meta (or, as one of the characters puts it, “recursive and meta”).
For approximately the first three quarters of its length Scalzi’s novel is light and entertaining fun along the lines of Ready Player One, though a bit deeper and with perhaps less of the whiff of YA novel about it. It’s a hoot to read and you don’t necessarily have to have seen Star Trek to enjoy it (though a knowledge of one-hour TV melodrama in general doesn’t hurt). But then he makes the unexpected decision to follow the main body of the novel — which by itself is more than a novella, but perhaps not quite long enough to be a published book — with three fairly lengthy codas set almost entirely in the book’s meta level and the tone of the writing changes significantly, becoming both more serious and ultimately more moving. These codas give the novel an odd structure and an extended denouement that would seem anticlimactic if it weren’t the most fascinating and readable part of the book. It’s almost as though Scalzi wants the reader to know that this isn’t a Star Trek novel and that he’s up to something far more substantial, a meditation on the meaning of life, fiction and personal choice. It’s here that I think Redshirts goes from being a very entertaining piece of humorous science fiction to being a very good novel, period. And it’s here that Scalzi proves that he’s more than just a brilliant practical joker who can very nearly convince you that Paul McCartney once wrote a song in the time it took to move his bowels.