Reviewed by James La Salandra
“This was the defining moment of his life. The reason he existed. Everything he’d ever done before, everything he’d ever been, said or wanted, had led him to this exact moment, to be skidding backward while Borgovian Land Worms bored through dirt and air to get him. This was his fate. His destiny.”
Despite being aptly described as “AMAZEBALLS HILARIOUS AND AWESOME” by actor Wil Wheaton, it is with such romanticism and depth as presented in the above quote that John Scalzi’s Redshirts explores the reliable trope of expendable extras prevalent in the realm of classic sci-fi television. Though clearly a comedic look through the eyes of these hapless, perpetual victims, Redshirts is remarkable for its excursions into existentialism and postmodernism. What’s more, owing in part to the three codas tacked on to the story’s end (much like bonus features on a DVD), there’s an unmistakable degree of tenderness underlying the overall narrative. These elements, interwoven with fast-paced and endlessly amusing dialogue, combine to create a story told with terrific depth and nuance, one which leaves the reader not only entertained, but thoroughly satisfied.
The story takes place in the mid-25th Century, and begins with a group of new recruits awaiting transport to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the fleet. The reader is introduced to former seminary student Andrew Dahl, ex-soldier Maia Duvall, silver spoon Jimmy Hanson, consummate troublemaker Finn, and his miserable sidekick Hester. Once aboard the ship, Ensign Dahl—the lead character in this endearing ensemble cast—is given a quick tour by Chief Science Officer Q’eeng en route to his assigned station in the xenobiology lab. It’s here that Dahl is first introduced not only to some of his colleagues, but also to the strangeness that surrounds the Intrepid and her crew.
Almost immediately, a problem arises: the ship’s astrogator, Lieutenant Kerensky, is stricken with the deadly Moravian Plague. Thanks to the fact that the other crew members in the lab have a knack for disappearing whenever a senior officer approaches, comically melodramatic Captain Abernathy tasks Dahl with synthesizing the “counter-bacterial” within six hours, lest the lieutenant succumb to the disease. Once the captain leaves and his colleagues return, Dahl becomes acquainted with the most vital piece of equipment in the lab: The Box. This baffling device is capable of solving virtually any problem. No one can explain just how it works, only that its functions will be completed at the most drama-inducing time possible. With only minutes to spare, Dahl is sent rushing to the bridge to present nonsensical data that miraculously leads to Kerensky’s full recovery—from a disease that liquefied a less fortunate away team member in a matter of minutes.
It’s soon revealed that Lieutenant Kerensky is no stranger to near-death experiences. It’s further explained that low-level away team members are well acquainted with death itself, which finds them through a wide variety of methods: alien plagues, falling rocks, Boragovian Land Worms, ice sharks…no two ensigns seem to meet quite the same fate, and as Dahl and his friends soon find out, such deaths are the result of something far more insidious than mere bad luck. As Collins, the lab’s commanding officer, explains, there are rules governing the events that transpire on each away mission, including an apparent dictate that at least one ensign die each trip. It’s for this reason that the crew is so eager to escape the attention of its senior officers, in hopes of avoiding assignment to away teams. However, Dahl is far too troubled by the ship’s mystique to assume the same passive stance, and soon enlists the help of Duvall, Finn, and the others to uncover the truth about the Intrepid’s dark secrets. With the assistance of Adam Jenkins, the mysterious crew member lurking in the bowels of the ship, the group soon discovers the problem is a lot bigger than a single starship.
From the Captain’s impassioned mannerisms to the inexplicably contrived dangers that confront the away teams, Redshirts is rife with hilarious send-ups of various, well-known devices on which sci-fi serials have relied for decades. The title itself is a reference to Star Trek’s tendency to dispense with ancillary, low-level crew members, clad in the red-shirted uniform of their station. Owing to the self-awareness granted them by Jenkins’ revelations, once the mythos of the “redshirt” is established the characters find themselves confronted not only with the problem of surviving, but with existential questions of the meaning behind their suddenly diminished chances of survival. Along the way, delivered through brilliantly quick-witted dialogue, the characters inject an element of humanity one might not have expected from what, from the outset, appears to be little more than parody. Though the book is unquestionably funny, it’s in the light of these deeper themes that the story truly begins to shine. Under duress of developments that leave everyone—including the reader—questioning their sanity, the story’s cast undergoes a remarkable transformation. Characters who, at the beginning of the story, seem to be so clearly defined simply as one particular archetype or another take on added dimension, and before long reveal that even a seemingly expendable extra can possess all the depth and nuance of a fully-fleshed person.
For all the surprises contained in the core story of the novel, the full sentimental impact isn’t felt until one reaches the three codas that follow. Each is written in a different literary perspective—first, second, and third—and each addresses the life of a somewhat minor character in the aftermath of the narrative proper. There, the assertion that even the least character possesses a full measure of humanity crystallizes into brilliant clarity. In those three closing chapters, tears from laughing at earlier portions of the story find their complement in bittersweet tears shed for loss and redemption. Though ending on such a serious note may seem counterintuitive for a comedic story, it proves to be a perfect punctuation to the heady themes presented by the novel. In the basic premise of hapless nobodies dying contrived deaths, John Scalzi’s finds cause to explore life, love, and loss in ways few can claim to have mastered. Redshirts is a rare story indeed, and one that any reader, not least of which being the science fiction fan, can genuinely enjoy and appreciate.