Dramatic tension comes from expectation of potential consequences, and the best way to show potential consequences is to demonstrate them on somebody. Hence if you need to establish a deadly threat to, say, Captain Kirk, and the team consists of Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy and some random unnamed extra, you don’t need an episode guide to tell you who’s gonna die. If you know what a “red shirt” is, you can probably guess what Redshirts is about, and be mostly right within an order of magnitude.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. This book is by John Scalzi, who probably doesn’t need any introduction, or at least if he does he doesn’t need one by me. He’s got a very prominent web site, appears to be omnipresent in the SF community, and has been blogging since well before blogging was cool. Furthermore he appears to be a guy who Gets It, whatever It happens to be (e.g., adapting to trends in publishing, getting his stuff accomplished on time, sympathetic toward gender issues, understanding that cats sometimes suffer lack of bacon, etc.) I’m not sure that I’d like to hang out with him as such, since we don’t know each other or anything, but he does seem to be awfully similar to people I do like to hang out with, and we share similar cultural markers. That said, while I certainly understand the love, I don’t always feel the love. My favorite works of his are The Android’s Dream, which I adore, and The God Engines, which I really enjoyed. I respect Old Man’s War, but didn’t really think that highly of the sequels, and I haven’t gotten around to Fuzzy Nation yet. (I do also really enjoy Judge Sn Goes Golfing.) However, even when I don’t personally enjoy something Scalzi writes, I can usually see the appeal.
The sample chapters of this one were intriguing so I took the plunge. Did I like the book? Yes. Did I dislike the book? Yes. Can I say, on balance, that it was a positive experience? Not sure. Let me quote the old nursery rhyme: “There was a little girl with a little curl on her forehead. When she was good she was very good, but when she was bad she was indistinguishable from an all-night freshman year bullshit session”. I will explain further below. Mild spoilers ahoy!
Although Star Trek may be a particularly egregious offender, the red shirt phenomenon is older than any of us, and probably older than dirt, considering that it shows up in the epic of Gilgamesh, which as far as I’m aware is the oldest existing story – when the gods decree that one of the two of Enkidu and Gilgamesh have to die for killing Ishtar’s bull, well, you know it ain’t called the Epic of Enkidu. Or all those Ithicans who didn’t make it back home with Odysseus. So this character exists to die in order to demonstrate how badass the hero is by eliminating the threat that the red shirt couldn’t, or to provide an emotional scene for the hero, just to establish that the hero’s in deadly danger, or even to goad the hero into a new paroxysm of hero-ness. I guess you could write a story where the hero dies 90% of the way through for no particular reason and someone unnamed solves the problem of the hour, but that probably would be deeply unsatisfying to read and probably hard as hell to write, and it would go against all narrative tradition while you were at it.
So when Andrew Dahl is assigned to the Universal Union flagship Intrepid, he quickly discovers that life is nasty, brutish, and short if you don’t happen to be one of five or so major officers, and that one’s odds of death when being around these officers go up to an alarming degree. As an aside, it’s also not that great to be astrogator Lieutenant Kerensky, who somehow manages to survive flesh melting plagues, being repeatedly shot, buried under debris, and alien possession on a regular basis and come back for more. Although he’s also had three rounds of sexually transmitted infections, so apparently it’s not all thorns for him. Anyway if you’re on an away mission with Kerensky then the same horrible thing is going to happen to both of you except he’s going to survive and you are not. The captain and the superintelligent, standoffish first officer are likely to emerge more or less unscathed. (Quick shout out - I really liked how Scalzi didn't go for the low-hanging fruit here. These officers actually aren't the terrible people that you might expect and seem as puzzled as anyone why they don't fix the consoles so they don't explode in the crew's faces all the time.)
Most of the stuff in the first third of the book deals with the characters, Dahl and four of his red-shirt buddies, coming to grips with the increasing weirdness of their situation and possibly their impending demise. Much of it is genius, especially to anyone familiar with SF television series. For instance, there’s an explanation of how, given a six hour deadline, the science section can come up with a cure for anything, but not until the five and a half hour mark. Also, the packed ship appears empty when a major officer comes around because the crew members sensibly hide, not being complete suckers. The ones that can’t get away stride purposely around hoping to avoid eye contact or being asked to do anything or, God forbid, be asked on an away mission.
I really liked this section of the book. I was really entertained and actually laughed out loud a few times, something I don’t often do while reading. Where it began to go off the rails for me a little bit was when they realize that they’re probably characters on a really derivative television series and decide to confront their creators. They decide to do this by commandeering a shuttlecraft and flying it into a black hole, an action which I approve of. However, at this point, I was aware of a metatextual issue which Scalzi (to his credit) later addresses as well, namely this: once you focus on a supporting character he’s no longer a supporting character, he’s a hero. Tom Stoppard dealt with this in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, but only by the expedient of having the “main characters” accomplish precisely zip throughout the show. In the opposite vein, Terry Pratchett tried to write a book about the sort of guys who come out when the local tyrant yells for the guards and ended up creating Sam Vimes and Carrot and a large number of his best and most loved characters. So, while some random people might get horribly killed by Borgovian land worms and ice sharks, once Dahl starts being proactive you’re pretty sure that whatever he has in mind is actually going to succeed and he probably won’t just up and die. Especially after he manages to make it through a couple of “episodes” more or less intact.
I won’t say if Dahl actually makes it or not, but it’s not an unreasonable thing to think that he will by the midpoint. Scalzi actually toys around with this a little, by suggesting that whether it’s true or not is up to him, which is of course both obviously true and a little unfair to explicitly point out.
It’s also not that uncommon for fictional characters to meet their makers. Animal Man met Grant Morrison. Job met God. Many of the everyday details in this section were also funny and seemed very true to life in California circa 2012. But it sort of drifted closer to the event horizon of navel-gazing and then crossed over it at some point for me. Perhaps not everyone would have that same reaction, but as the story progressed I found myself guessing pretty accurately where we were going with the narrative (excuse me, Narrative) and at that point I found myself losing interest, although I will note that Scalzi did not himself appear as such, which was where I feared we might be headed with it.
Perhaps the source of some of my discontent was that the book itself (and the codas, especially) ended up being more of a manifesto on the proper treatment of fictional characters as opposed to a self-contained story in itself. As an extra, Dahl doesn’t have a lot of personality, just a thin veneer of a background story. The same is basically true for the other redshirts; they aren’t strong characters, although I do understand that they don’t want to die. Nonetheless, while the scenes of them sitting around being sarcastic at each other stopped being funny for me at about the point I realized that there wasn’t going to be a lot more detail given about them, and when the highly structured scenario meant that literally anything could happen at any point. The manifesto itself is sort of interesting, but coming from a man who once had his extra characters have to fight some advanced aliens in a death match, it’s probably more penance than anything else. I guess I’d be in a more forgiving mood if these questions were presented in a more novel way, but I don’t know, it just didn’t work for me.
I guess it does seem a little unfair to blame a novel about people who are extras by definition for being weak characters, but hey, they’re supposed to carry their own story here. And they don’t quite manage it. I couldn’t help thinking that I would have unreservedly enjoyed this if this had been a novella and stopped before we learned whether their stolen shuttle plot had any effect or not. So, take that as you will and make your own choice; happily, no Narrative is forcing you to read or avoid anything.