BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Ensign Andrew Dahl, new crewmember on a ship of the Universal Union of Planets, slowly learns that the nature of his reality is stranger than he imagined.
PROS: Humorous writing, breezy dialogue and action married to the perfect narrator for the source material.
CONS: The three codas of the novel really feel like padding; non-Star Trek fans are going to find no purchase here.
BOTTOM LINE: An entertaining novel that really comes across well in audio form.
Andrew Dahl is a new officer on the Universal Union ship Intrepid, the flagship of this far future interstellar polity. He quickly learns that there are strange things going on the ship. Co-workers avoid away missions, and the senior staff of the ship in general, like the plague. A mysterious figure in the bowels of the ship provides cryptic warnings and advice. Dahl, and his new shipmates seem to have a target painted on their back. And just what is that mysterious gadget in Xenobiology, really? The answer to Dahl’s investigations, in the novel Redshirts by John Scalzi, is a metafictional trip down the rabbit hole.
This 2012 winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel is, at first, an unlikely choice for that award. Redshirts is not high art, nor a wonder work of science fiction literature. It’s broad and populist — and also a lot of fun, especially in audiobook form. And it’s deeper than it first appears.
The narration of the audiobook by Wesley Crusher himself, Wil Wheaton, is excellent. To have a former actor of Star Trek reading a novel that respectfully interrogates and satirizes Star Trek is a brilliant stroke that underscores the meta-textual nature of the novel. Wheaton reads the work very well, and infuses a lot of emotion and personality into the reading, especially into Andrew Dahl himself. While his reading of actions and descriptions is very good, he seems to really bring the book alive when reading dialogue.
Having consumed a few John Scalzi novels and stories, there are some common things at work in his fiction and Redshirts indulges them. Scalzi’s sense of humor, which leans towards being both snarky as well as broad physical humor, for example, is definitely present here. The bit about the crew members being afraid of dying on away missions and the general, illogical nature of the Star Trek universe proves this is a target-rich environment and Scalzi has no hesitation in opening fire. And, most importantly, he hits the target often. The more a reader is familiar with the tropes of Star Trek, the more the care and rigor of Scalzi’s ruthless interrogation of that universe becomes clear. In that way, this is a more rigorous form of parody than the movie Galaxy Quest, even though the target audience for Galaxy Quest and for Redshirts is nearly identical.
Moreover, the author does go deeper. A broad mix of characters are put on display, though that admittedly doesn’t make them overly complicated or unique. What it does allow him to do is to explore and work the relationship between them. It is here that, away from all the trappings, that the novel really works best. The dynamics of the relationships, in a metafictional point on its own, ultimately turns out to be a plot point. It’s as if Scalzi is satirizing his own tropes as well as those of Star Trek.
Was it really the best novel of 2012 for me? Hugo Award notwithstanding, probably not. Will it, especially if you watched and loved Star Trek and especially in audio form, entertain you for several hours of your life? Sensors indicate a positive response, Captain.