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The Old New Weird: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation cover

The cover should really be weirder than this.

Weird fiction was a genre of fiction even before there was such a thing as genre, which is really more a publishing term that tells bookstores what shelves they should put books on and gives self-published e-book authors some area of fiction that their books can excel in on’s many bestseller lists. The term “weird fiction” was coined by 19th century Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu, who specialized in what we would now call mystery and horror fiction, but which were then just part of the general mainstream of literature. Weird fiction encompasses ghost stories, horror stories and just about any stories in which something unusual and distinctly creepy is going on, whether or not it has a supernatural element to it. It lent its name to one of the greatest of all early 20th century pulp magazines, Weird Tales, probably best known today for having published most of the major work of that towering master of weird fiction, H.P. Lovecraft, with whose death in 1937 the popularity of weird fiction died too, leaving it as a niche genre that only a few writers, like Robert Bloch (better known for writing the novel Psycho than for his weird fiction) and Ramsey Campbell, continued to work in. In recent years, though, the genre has undergone something of a revival, much of it in a form called the New Weird, which nobody is able to define but everybody seems to agree is what’s being written by authors like China Miéville.

Jeff VanderMeer is an expert on weird fiction, having not only edited (along with his wife Ann VanderMeer) several collections of old weird and new weird fiction, but having written quite a bit of it himself, including the short story collection City of Saints and Madmen and the novel Finch. I grew up on the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and read quite a bit of the old weird fiction in my teens but have really only become aware of the renaissance in weird fiction recently, mostly from reading the introductions to Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s anthologies (which you should read — the introductions, I mean — if you want to know more about weird fiction than I’m telling you here, though this Wikipedia article is also helpful). I had been meaning for some time to explore the newer contributions to the field and when I noticed that Jeff VanderMeer had begun a new trilogy of weird fiction novels collectively called The Southern Reach, it seemed like an ideal place to start. I’ve now read the first novel in the series, Annihilation  — the second novel, Authority, will be published this May and the third novel, Acceptance, will be published in September — and can report that, while I’m not sure whether it belongs to the old weird fiction or to the new weird, it is unquestionably, undeniably weird.

Based on my own acquaintance with the field, I can tell you that weird fiction doesn’t emphasize a lot of the things that traditional fiction does, like character and plot, and only emphasizes setting to the extent that a story’s setting can contribute to its overall weirdness. H.P. Lovecraft occasionally introduced memorable characters into his stories, but by far his most memorable tended to be the frequently unnamed first-person narrators of his stories and their voices always seemed to be the voice of Lovecraft himself, though without the sense of humor he frequently displayed in his letters to friends. What is paramount to weird fiction is mood and the most common mood in weird fiction is dread, which can be either mild or so extreme that it causes the characters to become insane. Lovecraft was fond of saying that his narrators escaped insanity only through a form of denial, “the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents” as he puts it in his most famous (though far from best) story “The Call of Cthulhu.” (Sometimes they also resorted to morphine, which I gather was easier to obtain in Lovecraft’s day.)

In Annihilation, Vandermeer makes his priorities clear. He doesn’t even bother to give his characters names, referring to them only by the roles they play in the expedition that makes up the novel’s plot: the anthropologist, the psychologist, the surveyor. The narrator herself — all of these characters are female — is simply “the biologist.” The goal of their vaguely defined expedition is to explore a mysterious region known as “Area X” and it’s never clear where this region is, not just where it is on our planet, but whether it’s actually on our planet or even has a physical existence at all. It could well exist in the characters’ minds, given that nobody (with the possible exception of the psychologist, who seems to be running the expedition for the explorers’ “superiors,” a government agency known only as the Southern Reach) even seems to know how they arrived there. They crossed something called “the border” while in a state of hypnosis induced by the psychologist, who apparently also induced in their minds certain keywords that would cause them to respond in pre-programmed ways, including keywords that would cause them to commit suicide if necessary. We gradually learn that this isn’t the first expedition into Area X and that nobody seems to be sure how many previous expeditions there have been or whether the explorers returned from them. (Some of the explorers, like the narrator’s husband, did return, but with such altered personalities that the narrator is convinced that at some point in the expedition he was replaced by someone, or something, else. The narrator believes, based on notes she finds that her husband left behind in a mysterious location called “the lighthouse,” that he actually headed off even more deeply into Area X in search of a boat that he could use for further exploration.)

Much of the story concerns the discovery of a large hole in the ground with a staircase leading down into it, a frequent trope in Lovecraft’s work. Everybody calls this “the tunnel,” except for the narrator, who calls it “the tower,” insisting on seeing it as rising even though it’s distinctly descending. As the explorers climb down the staircase, they find phosphorescent writing on the wall relating (in English) a semicoherent narrative apparently being written by some creature that has worked its way down to an even lower level of the “tower.” Before they descend more than a short distance, the explorers decide to branch out in small parties from their base camp (which is simply the point at which they found themselves when they awoke from their hypnotic transition to Area X) and explore nearby points of interest, but gradually…well, I won’t give away any more of the plot, though VanderMeer is so obviously reluctant to make any coherent sense of this story that I’m almost hesitant to use the word “plot” to describe it.

As an introduction to weird fiction, I can’t think of a better place to start than this novel. It’s short — 56,000 words, which is barely more than half the length of one of the Hunger Games novels — adeptly written and distinctly evocative of, well, weirdness. If you prefer your fiction a bit more conventional, though, you’d be better advised to avoid it, because conventional is one thing VanderMeer is very intent on not being.


My Compliments to the Chef: The Dinner by Herman Koch

About a year ago, while making excuses for laying aside The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo after only about 40 pages or so, I discussed how much I dislike reading books in translation. The loss of the original text and the substitution of a new one waters down the author’s unique voice, destroys the direct sense of mind-to-mind connection that even mediocre novels can provide, and inflicts on the reader the voice of a translator who probably isn’t as good a writer as the one that he’s translating, else he’d be writing great novels of his own.

The Dinner by Herman Koch

The Dinner by Herman Koch

Herman Koch’s The Dinner, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, proves how wrong I was. I don’t know what the author’s original voice was like, but I don’t care. Garrett has done such a fine job of rendering the book into English that it really doesn’t matter whether it’s Koch’s mind, Garrett’s mind or a combination of the two that I’m connecting with. The book’s prose is seamlessly readable and I find it hard to imagine that it could have been significantly better in the original Dutch. It reads as smoothly and as intelligently as any well-crafted English-language novel I’ve read in recent years — better so than most — and that’s certainly good enough for me.

My friend George, who brought the book to my attention a few weeks ago when he praised it on a Web forum I frequent, said that the book has been compared to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and I can see why. It has the same acerbic, observational wit, the sense of seeing the world through the eyes of someone who notices telling details about the way we live, details that ring with ironic and often caustic truth. Also like Gone Girl, it has a major plot revelation about halfway through, but it’s not the kind that snaps your head around and causes you to rethink everything that’s come before, as Flynn’s was. In fact, Koch prepares you so thoroughly for the revelation that it doesn’t even come as a surprise and certainly doesn’t qualify as a plot twist.

What Koch does is something much subtler. I suspect that there will be, and probably have been, reviewers who will describe the novel’s first-person protagonist as an unreliable narrator, but he really isn’t. Nothing he tells you is misleading and when he omits information — as he frequently does — he tells you that he’s omitting it and assures you that he’ll fill in the details later — as he also does. What Koch does instead is to take advantage of the reader’s automatic tendency to sympathize with a first-person narrator and gradually, so slowly that you almost don’t notice that he’s doing it, subverts that expectation. I finished the book almost unsure of what I had just read or what any of it meant and when it finally came over me I realized that I was almost reluctant to accept it. Not to give too much away, but in the end the novel amounts to a major political statement — something that sounds quite boring but isn’t in the slightest — that addresses an issue that I find myself pondering during every major election: Why do people vote for things that are almost inhumanly cruel and harsh and then assume that these things don’t — and shouldn’t — apply to themselves?

What happens in the course of the book is that Koch alters your initial perceptions of the characters until you gradually realize that they are precisely the opposite of the people you thought they were in the beginning and that the character you most disdained throughout the majority of the novel is in fact the only person at the table — as its title implies, the novel takes place during the course of a single dinner — who is worth giving a damn about, the only one who isn’t a hypocrite and certainly the only one who has something resembling a conscience. And Koch does this so scrupulously that he never at any point betrays the reader’s trust in the integrity of his storytelling.

But while it is these gradual realizations that make the novel great, it is the witty, sharply observed prose and vividly drawn characters, as well as the way Koch draws out his revelations while always letting you know that they’re coming, that make it readable, even riveting, from the very beginning. If anything was lost in the book’s transition from Holland to America, it probably wasn’t worth having in the first place.

Surfing the End of the World: Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave

I haven’t written a book review in this blog for months. One reason, obviously, is that I haven’t read a book in months, but that’s not strictly true. I’ve read a few for professional reasons that I just don’t want to review. And I haven’t been able to work up the energy to review Rick Yancey’s YA alien invasion epic The 5th Wave.

The 5th Wave

I’m not quite sure why I haven’t been able to work up the energy, because it was one of the two best books I’ve read this year. That may sound like faint praise, but when the other book was Gillian Flynn’s stunning Gone Girl, it’s actually something of a compliment. I think the real reason I don’t have the energy to review The 5th Wave is that I liked it so much that I deliberately stretched out my reading of it to the point that by the time I reached the end, I couldn’t remember all the great things I’d planned to say about it at the beginning. So if this review, which I’m finally writing several months after I finished the book, seems a bit sketchy, it’s because I’ve forgotten most of what I loved about it.

But not all. One thing I loved was that Yancey has a gift for writing poetic prose that doesn’t come across as the slightest bit poetic unless you’re looking very closely, which is a terrific gift for a writer of YA novels, where the audience might be suspicious of any book that sounds like it might someday be assigned in English classes. And it also makes for terrific reading if you’re the sort of person like me who is intensely interested in the prose mechanics of a novel. It took me a while to realize that Yancey’s prose had an almost song-like cadence to it, while still sounding like the kind of writing one would expect from a science fiction thriller. His sentences are perfectly constructed. His paragraphs are perfectly constructed. And his chapters end with beautifully thought out buttons that will haunt you long after you’ve finished reading them. And all this will sneak up on you without you even noticing he’s done it.

He’s also gone out of his way to make the well-worn alien invasion tropes feel new again. It’s not that he does anything genuinely original here — I don’t think there’s a trick in this book that I haven’t seen in some other alien invasion novel — but he takes a whole bunch of tricks (the title tells you how many) and combines them into something unique. He gives away the book’s central surprise in the prologue, just to show that he doesn’t even have to surprise you with it to make it work. (It’s that the aliens arrive on earth by inserting their consciousnesses into the brains of unborn fetuses, where they will awaken in adolescence. And, no, I haven’t spoiled anything that you won’t know by page 2.) And then a fresh mothership full of aliens starts hitting us with one nasty attack after another, but I’ll let you discover what those are about by reading the book.

What I loved about it most, though, was the moral ambiguity of it all. The aliens in the book aren’t entirely evil. Even the worst of them are simply looking for a new world to live on and want to get rid of the previous occupants. The best of them…well, let’s just say that they can be as heroic as any of the humans.

The book follows two viewpoint characters, Cassie (for Cassiopeia) and Zombie (whose real name escapes me at the moment). Cassie is a teenage girl who lives alone in the woods, armed for bear, afraid of other people because she doesn’t know which ones are aliens in disguise — and you can probably imagine the ugly places a situation like that can lead. The other is part of a children’s army being trained to fight back against the aliens, because children seem to have survived the early attack waves in greater numbers than adults have. (There’s a reason for this, but it would be a spoiler to mention it.)

Most of the suspense and fascination of Yancey’s novel comes from the internal struggles of these characters, but he can write a great action scene too. Yet my favorite moments were mostly internal monologues. Which is odd, because I’ve been reading a lot of advice lately from writers and editors, including the late Elmore Leonard, saying that writers should avoid internal monologue because it bores readers, who are apparently frightened by long paragraphs without dialog. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something wrong with the fact that I love it. But Yancey’s book has been on bestseller lists already, so there must be other readers like me who don’t subscribe to the Elmore Leonard school of all-dialog narration. (In fairness to Leonard, most of Yancey’s book is first-person internal monologue, so you can think of it as dialog addressed to the reader.)

The 5th Wave is the first book of a trilogy, so don’t be disappointed if all your questions aren’t answered in the end and all the bad situations aren’t resolved. Some major plot arcs are tied up, so that should be enough to keep you happy until Book Two comes out. And if you’re like me, you’ll be lined up to download that book to your e-reader the moment it’s available.

Going, Going: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl cover
I had heard so much praise for this book (and one interesting demurral from an Internet friend) that I was prepared to be seriously disappointed by it. Yes, it would be a decent crime thriller, but like most decent crime thrillers it was probably being praised less because it was good and more because it didn’t totally reek.

God, was I wrong!

Gone Girl is one of the two or three best books I’ve read since I started writing these book reports three years ago and is quite possibly the best crime/mystery/thriller I’ve read ever (unless you count The Silence of the Lambs, which I don’t think will ever be surpassed). Why do I love it so much? Let me count the ways:

Plot: The plot of Gone Girl is a clockwork mechanism that unfolds so naturally that you never sense that it was outlined or planned in advance and yet so perfectly that Gillian Flynn must have plotted it within an inch of its life before ever putting words on her hard drive. It’s a continuing miracle of ingenuity and I was impressed again and again by the way Flynn develops the story. And did I mention that it’s utterly gripping?

Character: The two main characters, Nick (the husband) and Amy (the wife), are so well drawn that Flynn is actually able to turn characterization itself into a plot twist, something I’m not going to further explain. The minor characters, while not always depicted with depth, are always believable and almost always interesting. Nick’s sister Go, short for Margo, is the most fully realized and the most important to the plot, but Flynn’s portrait of the press corps is especially vivid, with a particularly venomous depiction of Nancy Grace, here referred to as Ellen Abbott.

Style: Every line of the novel is written with such incisive wit that, even when I wanted to swipe my finger across the screen of my e-reader to find out what happened next, I forced myself to read slowly just to enjoy the prose. Not only does it crackle, but it occasionally made me laugh out loud. And Flynn neatly avoids the cliched tone of the crime genre, producing something that reads like Jonathan Franzen could have written if Jonathan Franzen would lower himself to writing genre fiction.

But most of all I love it because, somewhere in the midsection of the book, Flynn pulls off the greatest plot twist I’ve seen since the TV show Lost switched from flashbacks to flashforwards. It’s the kind of twist that snaps your head around and makes you rethink everything that’s happened up until that moment. I love it when that happens in a book and I haven’t seen it happen that much lately (or at least the great plot twists seem to have moved from books to serial TV shows). There used to be writers — I’m thinking specifically here of William Goldman, Ira Levin and John Farris — who could do 180 degree turns in the middle of a novel and leave you gasping at the sheer audacity of their literary stunt work, but I was beginning to think that this was a lost art.

I guess I should do a brief plot summary, but I’m not going to dwell on it. Gone Girl is the story of a marriage gone sour, the marriage between the aforementioned Nick and Amy, and it turns on the disappearance of Amy on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary. Flynn rather ingeniously tells the story in double first person, with Nick and Amy narrating alternating chapters. Nick’s chapters are set in the present time (which is some point in 2012, when the book was published) and Amy’s chapters, which are couched as diary entries, fill in the expository details, giving the reader the back story that led up to the present situation. This works amazingly well, once again reminding me of Lost in the way that Amy’s flashbacks illuminate Nick’s present time action, and it’s this narrative technique that makes the stunning plot twist possible.

If Flynn falters anywhere it’s in the final chapters, where the novel becomes a kind of chess game with players alternating moves and I began to sense that Flynn didn’t know which move to end on. I think she chose the right player to end with, but there’s a sense that she ends the story more because she has to than because she found the right moment to do it. At the very least I wish the final chapter had left more of a sense of what was going to happen after the book was over; there are hints, but I found them rather weak.

But the 95 percent of the book leading up to the end is so brilliantly conceived that I’ll happily forgive Flynn for any imperfections in the way she sums things up.

Lost in the Library of Life: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is an absolute delight from first page to last, one of those rare books that I never had the urge to put down for even a second. It reminds me of two other books that I’ve read this year, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and John Scalzi’s Redshirts, in that it has a distinct meta-interest to geeks. Yet it goes well beyond either of those books and offers reading joy to a much wider audience. Unlike those books, it isn’t even science fiction, yet it possesses the same wide-eyed sense of wonder that gives that genre its greatest appeal.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore doesn’t really belong to any distinct genre, yet at its heart it’s a kind of puzzle, a book with a secret at its center that needs to be unraveled. Note that I don’t call it a mystery, because it doesn’t belong to any known variation on the mystery genre. In a way it’s a very old-fashioned book, yet at the same time it lies at the cusp between Gen-X and Gen-Y fiction. It’s about dusty old books with fraying bindings, but it’s also about computers, smartphones and Google.

Beyond that, here’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot, because this is a book you really ought to discover for yourself: It’s about an out-of-work young graphic designer wandering the streets of San Francisco, unable to find a job in the crashed economy, who sees in the window of a bookstore that most old-fashioned technology for gaining employment: a help wanted sign. He talks to the owner, Mr. Penumbra, and gets hired for the middle-of-the-night shift. (This is, as the title reminds us, a 24-hour bookstore.) Our hero, Clay, spends most his time with nothing to do, because entire nights pass by without a single customer entering the store. And when they do they are usually older people, identified by cryptic combinations of letters and numbers, who have borrowing rights for books in the rear section of the store, a collection of one-of-a-kind books, many of them quite ancient, also identified by cryptic combinations of letters and numbers, that Clay dubs the Waybacklist, arranged alphabetically on towering shelves mostly accessible from a sliding ladder.

Bored to tears, Clay (who has some computer programming skills) starts using the computer at the front desk to create a 3D computer model of the bookstore and to graph the pattern formed by the positions of the books returned by the customers and the books that they borrow next. And when he looks at the graph he discovers…

Okay, I’m not telling you any more than that, but when Clay’s friends who work for Google and Industrial Light & Magic get involved, the real mystery of the bookstore begins to reveal itself. Although I won’t tell you what it is, I’ll say that the solution to the mystery is nothing like you suspect it will be and is surprisingly touching when revealed. In some ways this is a book about the intersection of old technology and new technology and how they aren’t really as different as we tend to think they are. But it’s also a book about life and human beings and the patterns we all make through time.

Finally, it’s a book about a font that’s almost as old as printing itself. And if that doesn’t make you want to read it, I can’t imagine what will.

(Incidentally, for those who might wonder why I haven’t filed one of these book reviews in such a long time I can only say that I haven’t stopped reading, but the books I’ve been reading are entirely work related and, for reasons I don’t want to go into, I have no interest in offering my opinions of them in print. Sorry for being so cryptic, but sometimes life is like that. And because I’ve stopped listing all the books I’ve read, I’ve dropped the numbers from the headers of the posts.)

Stranger in a Strange Body: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Book #17 for 2012: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Cover of Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Reading Redshirts by John Scalzi made me curious to see more of his work. According to something I read either on Scalzi’s blog or in his Twitter feed, Old Man’s War is his bestselling book to date and it was the inaugural volume in a series of books that so far includes four titles with a fifth on the way. (I’m going to guess that Redshirts has had such a strong roll-out in the media, complete with a profile of Scalzi in the New York Times, that it will eventually be the better seller of the two, but Old Man’s War has a seven year lead on it in sales.)

Old Man’s War is essentially a book-length shout-out to Robert Heinlein, something that Scalzi acknowledges in the endnotes, and since there are probably people reading this who don’t know (or remember) who Heinlein was, I’m going to talk about him first. Heinlein dominated the science fiction field from the late 1930s through the 1960s as no writer has before or since. Heinlein’s work was marked by vigorous, no-nonsense (and distinctly non-literary) prose, a gift for projecting the intersection of science and politics into future centuries, and a strong libertarian philosophy that was expressed in books as varied as Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land. Ironically, the latter book, with its philosophy of free love (sex being a topic that either increasingly appealed to Heinlein as he grew older or that publishers increasingly allowed him to write about), became something of a cult phenomenon among the 60s counterculture, a group for which the relatively conservative Heinlein had little use. (The short version of that story is that Heinlein supported the Vietnam War while the counterculture didn’t.) Heinlein continued writing until his death in the late 1980s, though his later books were increasingly rambling and idiosyncratic, with only a trace of the vigorous writing he was capable of when younger. For more than one generation of readers, Heinlein was known as the author of what used to be called the “Heinlein juveniles,” a series of YA novels written mostly in the 50s that served as a gateway drug for budding science fiction addicts. Scalzi mentions elsewhere that one of these, Starman Jones, is a particular favorite of his. (It’s also my personal favorite of the Heinlein juveniles, though I didn’t read it until I was in my 20s.)

One of Heinlein’s recurring topics was war, in particular the duty of individual citizens to serve in the military, a theme he explored most thoroughly in the 1959 novel Starship Troopers. I don’t know that Old Man’s War is an attempt to rewrite Starship Troopers, but it explores many of the same themes, even while managing to invert some of them. The most interesting innovation that Scalzi brings to the table is that in his future society (probably centuries from now, but I’m not sure he ever mentions a date) anyone may voluntarily join the military on their 75th birthday and fight in the wars between humans and aliens over the dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of colonizable star systems that have by then been discovered by the human race. The incentive for joining the army is that there are rumors that the colonial army has acquired advanced alien technology that will give old people young bodies again, a rumor that turns out to be — I hope I’m not spoiling anything here — true.

The main character is a retired writer named John Perry who could be a stand-in for Heinlein himself. Heinlein spent much of his life disappointed that he was not able to serve in World War II because of tuberculosis and it’s pleasant to think that Scalzi saw this book as a way to imagine a technology that would have given Heinlein his wish, or something very much like it. Much of the fun of Old Man’s War, as in Starship Troopers, is seeing how many wildly different alien races Scalzi can pit humanity against, each with its own personality, physical form, culture, technologies, but all with a single motive — expanding to new planets with minimal competition from other races. Scalzi writes about this as vigorously and entertainingly as Heinlein ever did.

But after reading two Scalzi novels I’ve noticed that there’s one thing he writes about much more effectively than Heinlein did: love. And not the intense romantic and sexual love of young people (though both Redshirts and Old Man’s War have a little of this), but the deeper companionate love of married couples, a subject not often explored in science fiction, at least not in the moving way that Scalzi explores it. Maybe this is just a sign of my own increasing age and experience with longer term relationships, but it’s this theme that most draws me to Scalzi’s work. If I had to make a wild ad hominem guess, I’d say that Scalzi is a man who loves his family very much and understands what it would be like to lose them, a feeling he conveys quite powerfully (and in unexpected ways) in his fiction. Redshirts surprised me at the end by leaving me in tears and Old Man’s War comes very close to doing the same.

Of course I’m generalizing based on two books, always a risky thing to do, but I’m guessing I’ll find this theme recurring in his other works. At least I hope I do. Without that theme Scalzi would be just a very good Heinlein clone — not necessarily a bad thing to be — but with it he becomes something a great deal more.

POSTSCRIPT: After writing the above, I read an interview with Scalzi on the Wired Web site where he says that all of his books are essentially humorous, but that the novels haven’t been packaged as such because publishers are afraid that humorous science fiction won’t sell. (He hopes that Redshirts’ recent appearance on the New York Times bestseller list will be a “kind of a wake-up call…that the science fiction audience — regardless of the long-held superstitions or beliefs of those who publish the stuff — is more than happy to entertain the idea of humorous science fiction.”) I see his point, but I’m not sure that he realizes the degree to which the impact of his books depends on the reader’s realization (or at least on this reader’s realization) that his works have a deep and not at all humorous core; they touch, in fact, on deep emotional truths.

I also realized, when reflecting on the way I’d been affected emotionally by both Old Man’s War and Redshirts, that both books have essentially the same ending, or at least depend on very similar plot developments for their emotional impact. I wouldn’t dream of giving away what that plot element is — it would be waaaaay too much of a spoiler — but it makes me wonder if Scalzi isn’t something of a one-trick emotional pony. Okay, that’s based on two examples out of, what, maybe a dozen or so books that Scalzi has written and is therefore almost certainly wrong, but even if it turns out to be correct I don’t think it’s to Scalzi’s detriment, because it’s one hell of a powerful emotional trick.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Jim: Redshirts by John Scalzi

Book #16 for 2012: Redshirts by John Scalzi

Cover of Redshirts by John Scalzi

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.