The novel “Redshirts” by John Scalzi was published for the first time in 2012. It won the Hugo and Locus awards as the best science fiction novel of the year.
Ensign Andrew Dahl has been assigned to the Intrepid, the Universal Union flagship. Initially he’s happy for the prestigious position but soon discovers that the away missions seem incredibly dangerous. Senior officers always manage to survive, some lieutenant get wounded but ensigns tend to be killed.
Intrepid’s low-rank officers have become very superstitious and do everything to stay on the ship and avoid being sent on away missions. Andrew Dahl, along with some fellow ensigns, tries to understand the reasons for that very unusual situation but the explanation seems really crazy and the solution to the problem even crazier.
In the original “Star Trek” series, the away missions on the frontier planets were dangerous but they couldn’t certainly kill Kirk or Spock. For this reason, together with them there was always some unknown officer, typically an ensign, who became the sacrificial victim. They were security officers who wore a red shirt, so the English term “redshirt” in time became a part of the slang in the science fiction world to indicate a character destined for certain death.
From this concept, John Scalzi wrote a novel that, at least initially, is a “Star Trek” parody. In particular, the author reuses some clichés that were used in the original series to add drama to the episodes with action scenes.
In “Redshirts”, the mortality of the ensigns serving on the starship Intrepid is very high and when Andrew Dahl is assigned to it he quickly starts being concerned about his survival. Despite this premise, the first part of the novel is overtly humorous precisely because it’s a parody so the characters’ behavior is often over the top and events are often bizarre if not surreal.
Andrew Dahl wants to understand the causes of such a high mortality on the Intrepid, greater even than that happening on starships engaged in risky missions. The answer is shocking: he and the rest of the Intrepid crew are actually characters in a TV show of the 21st century.
This idea is really hard to accept but for Andrew Dahl and his colleagues also represents the only hope of salvation. It also results in a change in the tone of the novel, which becomes more philosophical. There have been many cases in the past of novels and even movies in which a character in a story gains knowledge of his own nature.
John Scalzi didn’t boldly go where no author had ever gone before but even his humorous stories have complex plots. In this case, after the initial part where Andrew Dahl investigates what happens on the Intrepid, the author develops the story until the meeting between characters, actors and production team of the TV show.
“Redshirts” isn’t a philosophical novel yet it poses questions on topics such as fate and free will, valid not only for the characters of the TV show but also for their creators and actors. The main story is short by today’s standards and there are three codas narrated in first, second and third person about three characters of the novel with quite intense stories.
In these codas, the tone is very different from the lighthearted one of the first part of the novel. They show the impact of the TV show and the subsequent encounter with the characters on their lives. The novel is mostly plot-oriented and great importance to the questions it poses, while these codas give their protagonists a real depth.
The relationship between the authors, literary or screenwriters, and the characters they create and the one between the actors / actresses and the characters they play can be complex. “Redshirts” is a celebration of minor characters and also of the actors and actresses who aren’t stars but play a role sometimes for a few minutes making little money they need to survive.
All those elements form a novel a bit uneven with a tone that changes in the course of the story and a pace that is sometimes slow and leaves room for introspection while at other times is faster, almost frantic. A knowledge of the original “Star Trek” series is almost essential to understand the many references in the novel. Getting into the story mechanisms at its beginning is probably the only way to appreciate its later parts and the codas.
The fact that “Redshirts” is rathen uneven in my opinion is its only real problem, otherwise it’s a kind of novel that can inspire very subjective reactions. Personally I liked it with moments I found hilarious and others touching. Due to its characteristics it’s difficult to recommend it to everyone but if you are intrigued by the elements in it, I think it’s worth reading it.