Review: “Redshirts” by John Scalzi

Title: Redshirts
Author: John Scalzi
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: TOR, 2012

I’ve mentioned before, I don’t usually do audiobooks. I prefer to actually read for myself, and don’t typically have a long, boring commute. I made an exception in this case. I had heard a little bit of buzz for this book over the past year or so, around the time it won the Hugo, and was planning to read it eventually. Then I found out the audiobook was narrated by Wil Wheaton, and I decided that this one needed to happen via my iPod. Why? I’ll get to that.

Ensign Andrew Dahl is new to the Universal Union flagship Intrepid, but it has already become clear that something strange is going on. It’s a prime posting, one of the most coveted berths in the Dub-U fleet, but Dahl soon notices that all of his superiors conveniently disappear when a senior officer is around. Then there’s the fact that nearly every away mission involves some sort of lethal encounter with killer robots, deadly diseases, or improbably creatures. Lowly crewmembers die left and right, and Lieutenant Kerensky may get the living $#!^ beat out of him, but he’ll always make a full recovery and none of the senior officers will be seriously injured. On top of these statistically unlikely death figures, every so often everything gets really melodramatic and occasionally nonsensical. It’s the twenty-fifth century and we still have people killed on the bridge when their console explodes? Why haven’t we installed a surge protector by now? And why is it that decks six through ten are always the ones that take damage? Most of the ensigns on the Intrepid are more interested in keeping their heads down and avoiding away missions than they are in figuring out just what’s going on, but Dahl…Dahl is determined to get to the bottom of the matter. And maybe, just maybe, in doing so he can save the life of himself and his friends.

Obviously, this is a parody of Star Trek and it’s many clones. Will you be able to enjoy it without being a Trekkie? I think so. I’m a casual Trekkie at best, much more devoted to the Galaxy Far, Far Away than I am Mr. Roddenberry’s utopian vision of our future. I may have missed a few of the references or more pointed jokes, but I don’t think it took away from my enjoyment all that much. This is also an incredibly metafictional yarn. Or rather, it’s a novel about characters who discover they are all extras on a basic-cable science fiction series. They’re fictional, even within the pages of the book, but they’re also real people with real lives. And they’re tired of being killed off to prove that the situation is serious…. On one level, this is a light read with a biting dose of snark and sarcasm. On another level, this is a fairly deep meditation on the nature of fiction and free will.  Which level you read it on is up to you. I enjoyed it immensely, even the three codas that wrap up the stories of three of the “real” people who encounter our “fictional” characters and now have to deal with the fact that reality is not quite what they thought it was. There are a few criticisms that could be leveled at the book, however. Some reviewers have criticized Scalzi for his inability to differentiate his characters’ voices–all of them speak the same way. I don’t know if this is so much a lack of ability as it is Scalzi not finding this particular element to be a priority, but I can’t dispute the point. They all sound the same, which leads to every line of dialogue being attributed, even during snappy back-and-forth banter. On the page, I don’t mind so much. In an audiobook, that got a little annoying. Another criticism leveled at Scalzi is his lack of exposition and description, complaints about how he let’s the dialogue carry the story almost on its own. This is true, so far as the facts go–his work is incredibly dialogue driven, with little exposition or description, but I think it’s unfair to lambast him for what is effectively just his personal style of writing. If you don’t like it, go read Stephen King. He should have exposition enough for the both of them.* I personally found the degree of profanity off-putting, but that’s a matter of personal taste to some degree.

Now to the audiobook-specific part of the review. Wil Wheaton was an obvious choice, given his geek-god status and the added layer of “metaness” that comes from him actually having been a Star Trek actor in his youth. He’s also suitably sarcastic, which works well. What he does not do is affect different voices for the different characters. He’ll change his voice to indicate if a character is yelling, whispering or drunk, but not to indicate who is talking. This works out okay, since Scalzi attributes every line of dialogue, but I know that this is a major concern for some consumers of audiobooks. I did find the constant attribution to be slightly annoying, but not a deal breaker. Just know what you’re in for.

CONTENT: Heavy use of R-rated language. An off-putting level of such, in my opinion. Sexual innuendo and references, but nothing too explicit. Characters die in a number of horrific and improbably ways, but that shouldn’t be a surprise given the premise.

*Don’t take this as an insult to Stephen King. I like Stephen King. He’s just got a reputation for using lots of exposition and description.

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2 Comments

Filed under Books, Novels, Reviews

2 responses to “Review: “Redshirts” by John Scalzi

  1. Redshirts was certainly enjoyable, but I don’t think it lived up to all the hype it received when it came out. I havne’t read much Scalzi, so I have no idea if the dialog heavyness is his writing style. But reading your review, and thinking about the Star Trek parodyness of the whole thing, and thinking about Star Trek TOS episodes (yes, I’m a Trekkie!), I was reminded that those episodes were pushed forward by the dialog. They certainly weren’t pushed forward by any logical physics. So the dialog might be a Scalzi thing, or might be another connection to what he’s parodying.

    • I didn’t really hear much of the hype when it came out–I was still an SF fan, but I wasn’t nearly as connected to the internet-based fandom culture as I am now. I just knew it won a Hugo, and then read the premise. It seemed promising….

      I read Fuzzy Nation a few years ago, unaware that it was a part of a larger world (or more accurately, a reboot of said world.) I enjoyed it, but looking back I can’t really remember much about it stylistically. That was before I started doing this crazy reviewing thing…. 😛 I ought to read more of Scalzi’s body of work. I hear Old Man’s War is incredible.

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