BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In a Star Trek-like future, ensign Andrew Dahl, newly assigned to the UUC Intrepid, tries to get to the bottom of the strange occurrences that nobody seems to want to talk about.
PROS: Pokes good-natured fun at genre television without disrespecting it; clear and concise writing; humorous without being silly.
CONS: The final “coda” chapters didn’t add all that much and felt like tacked on extras.
BOTTOM LINE: If you like science fiction television (particularly Star Trek) and are looking for a lighthearted read, Redshirts is well worth your time.
Humor is a tough nut to crack within the confines of science fiction, a genre that prides itself on the very unfunny concepts of scientific knowledge and accuracy. To successfully pull it off, it has to avoid the absurd (that is, keep suspending disbelief), not be too over-the-top (lest it fall into the realm of the ridiculous), and — most important of all — actually be funny.
In Redshirts, John Scalzi shows he can write humor by tackling those very notions. He directly addresses some of the silliness genre fans overlook or otherwise like to joke about amongst fellow scifi nerds. And here’s the key that helps him succeed: he does it with respect. Much like the film Galaxy Quest accomplished, Redshirts makes fun of the source material without being condescending or insulting.
Redshirts takes place in a Star Trek-like future aboard the UUC Intrepid. Newly assigned ensign Andrew Dahl is eager to start his tour of duty, and jumps in with both feet. However, it soon becomes apparent that something is not quite right. Specifically, he notes that the ship’s away missions almost always result in death and that the low-ranked starship ensigns seem to suffer the large majority of those deaths…while the captain, science officer and handsome Lieutenant move about largely unharmed. (Other crew members notice it as well, but they have the know-how to avoid the away team missions.)
This situation should sound very familiar to anyone who has sat at the geek table at lunch. (Raises hand.) It’s the age-old joke about the “redshirts” on Star Trek‘s USS Enterprise. Only in the book’s universe, it’s a frightening reality. Well, I say “frightening”, but the book is actually a lighthearted and fun read. That’s because the author has his snark set to kill. It pokes fun not only at the Redshirts’ tendency to get themselves killed, but also a host of other illogical plot points that routinely take place on these shows…like why control panels always emit sparks when they malfunction, for example. Watchers of television scifi will quickly get the references that frequently provide a meta-level of enjoyment they will love. Such “real world” commentary is even witnessed by Dahl, who represents the reality-based voice of reason in a world that doesn’t quite make sense. There is, of course, a reason for this, but I’ll let you discover that out for yourself.
The breezy tone of the book and the depiction of the premise — a joke that threatens to wear thin in a novel, but doesn’t here — are strong enough to overlook the book’s few stumbles: namely that the characters are somewhat cardboard (which is admittedly kind of the point) and that the post-story “codas” read like DVD extras that make you question why they were added. But even they cannot detract from the fact that Redshirts accomplishes exactly what it was intended to do: entertain the science fiction fan. In that respect, the book wildly succeeds.