John Scalzi’s ‘Redshirts’ explores the downside of life as a supernumerary aboard a TV spacecraft

July 24, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 24, 2015

John Scalzi’s 2012 novel, Redshirts, is a wonderful comic exploration of what life might be like for the crew of a spaceship featured in a campy television series.

Scalzi’s protagonist is Ensign Andrew Dahl, a 25th-century xenobiologist who has just been assigned to the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union. He’s one of five new junior crew members who quickly become aware that their new starship is, well, a little unusual.

For instance, take Dahl’s first away mission, to a space station overrun by deadly robots:

Dahl screamed McGregor’s name, stood and unholstered his pulse gun, and fired into the center of the pulpy red haze where he knew the killer machine to be. The pulse beam glanced harmlessly off the machine’s surface. Hester yelled and pushed Dahl down the corridor, away from the machine, which was already resetting its harpoon. They turned a corner and raced away into another corridor, which led to the mess hall. They burst through the doors and closed them behind them.

“These doors aren’t going to keep that thing out,” Hester said breathlessly.

Dahl examined the doorway. “There’s another set of doors here,” he said. “Fire doors or an airlock door, maybe. Look for a panel.”

“Found it,” Hester said. “Step back.” He pressed a large red button. There was a squeak and a hiss. A pair of heavy doors slowly began to shut, and then stalled, halfway closed. “Oh, come on!” Hester said.

Through the glass on the already closed set of doors, the killer machine stepped into view.

“I have an idea,” Dahl said.

“Does it involve running?” Hester asked.

“Move back from the panel,” Dahl said. Hester stepped back, frowning. Dahl raised his pulse gun and fired into the door panel at the same time the machine’s harpoon punctured the closed outer door and yanked it out of the doorway. The panel blew in a show of sparks and the heavy fire doors moved, shutting with a vibrating clang.

“Shooting the panel?” Hester said, incredulous. “That was your big idea?”

“I had a hunch,” Dahl said, putting his pulse gun away.

“That the space station was wired haphazardly?” Hester said. “That this whole place is one big fucking code violation?”

“The killer machines kind of gave that part away,” Dahl said.

There was a violent bang as a harpoon struck against the fire door.

“If that door is built like the rest of this place, it won’t be long before that thing’s through it,” Hester said.

“We’re not staying anyway,” Dahl said, and pulled out his phone for a station map. “Come on. There’s a door in the kitchen that will get us closer to the shuttle bay. If we’re lucky we won’t run into anything else before we get there.”

Dahl, Hester and their comrades are soon forced to accept the ludicrous idea that their ship is suffering from extremely high casualties and all manner of absurd incidents because they are appearing in a television program. With the aid of a rogue crewman and the involuntary assistance of one of the show’s starring characters — young Lieutenant Kerensky, who gets injured at a ridiculously high rate but always survives — Dahl and company embark upon a desperate bid to free themselves from the tyranny of the Narrative.

Redshirts is a gas. Most fans of the original Star Trek, as I am, should love the way it lampoons the show’s foibles and idiosyncrasies. Unfortunately, Scalzi’s book is relatively short; the main narrative clocks in at 231 pages.

There are three codas comprising another 83 pages, but these are far less sprightly than than the book’s main body. The longest coda, which runs nearly 40 pages, struck me as particularly weak, and the middle coda, the second-longest entry in this section, doesn’t really hit its stride until more than halfway through. I did like the final (and shortest) coda, which satisfyingly canvasses one romance while setting the stage for another love affair.

Overall, I found Redshirts to be a terrifically fun romp. There’s a solid chance I’ll be reading more of his work in the future!

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