John Scalzi’s Redshirts starts as a Star Trek parody and ends as something deeper.
His protagonists are five new crew members of the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union. As they get oriented, they quickly discover that a) the ship often solves crises with solutions that don’t make scientific sense, b) certain officers tend to get their subordinates killed, and c) the surviving subordinates have developed elaborate systems for avoiding those officers. Andrew Dahl, one of the new crew members, eventually figures out what’s happening: they’re on a sci-fi TV show. And it’s a bad one.
Even worse, he and his friends are extras, expendable “red shirts” (as they’re known to Trekkies) that the writers will kill off when they need a quick emotional punch before a commercial. The rest of the novel is about how Dahl and co. try to change their fate.
This is when the depth comes in. As his protagonists ponder what it means to be fictional (or at least influenced by a fictional narrative), Scalzi devotes a lot of space to questions of agency: do the characters have free will when they’re not in a scene? Do they exist outside the show? What happens when it finally ends—will they disappear?
These are, of course, versions of questions philosophers have asked for ages. (What if we’re just living in a giant’s dream, and he wakes up?) Scalzi’s answer is that, rather than assuming everything’s already written and predetermined, it’s better to act under the assumption that what you do matters—there is agency, even if it’s limited in some respects.
None of this is new. But I enjoyed how Redshirts worked its theme into banter between the crew members while explicitly referencing other fictional works that had characters interact with their supposed narrators (a la Stranger Than Fiction). Scalzi also toys with the third level of his metanarrative—as he makes clear at the end, he’s the ultimate writer/god of the story, one step up from the fictional writers of the fictional TV show inhabited by Dahl and his fictional friends. Doing so complicates the “you have agency” message, but I appreciated the acknowledgement.
The book's three codas seemed less necessary. And the fact that every line of dialogue has a speaker tag was especially annoying when I listened to the audio version. (When I’m reading, my eye tends to glide over extra instances of “he said” or “she said,” but they stand out more when a narrator has to verbalize them.)
Still, Redshirts was as fun as I thought it would be, and a good bit more thought-provoking. Worth a try.
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