Redshirts – by John Scalzi. Slapstick space-comedy with much maiming and a sweet ending.
Redshirts is a novel by John Scalzi. I’m really starting to dig his work, I’ve read a couple of books now and they’ve both been quite a bit of fun to read. His most influential work to date is likely Old Man’s War (the other book of his I’ve read, which I will post about shortly), and he’s also worked on the Stargate franchise. For those of you who know me well, you’ll know that serves to give him quite a bit of cred, in my eyes.
You can guess the topic from the title, and Redshirts is a ton of fun, from start to finish. Let’s dig in.
The book starts on a dramatic away mission, where crew members are investigating a planet surface. The scene is told from the vantage point of a low-ranking ensign who’s stuck on a rock and surrounded by sand with Borgovian Land Worms circling in for the kill. The senior officers, also on the away mission and headed up by Captain Abernathy, are trying to figure out how to get themselves out of this mess.
All sorts of strange things pop into the ensign’s mind as he’s sitting there. Like, how his father had served with the captain on the Benjamin Franklin at some point in the past, where his father even saved the captain’s life at one point. How the things coming out of his superiors’ mouths (“don’t move! It’ll attract the worms!”) sounded dumber than usual, and how suddenly – and against his better judgment – he somehow decides that if he makes a break for it he can run to a cave before the worms can get him. Well, you can guess how that ends, and poor Captain Abernathy is left wondering how he’ll ever explain to the man that saved his life that he’s lost his son under the captain’s command.
So, that went well.
The story then shifts to Ensign Andrew Dahl, who’s just been assigned to the Intrepid, the prized flagship of the Universal Union under Captain Abernathy. Before boarding from a space station, he meets up with a few other crew members also newly assigned to the starship. All low-ranking ensigns, like him. They seem like a cool bunch, so they all decide to stick together as they go to board the Intrepid.
That is where things start to get weird. They start to hear rumblings about how the Intrepid goes through a staggeringly large number of ensigns. When they hit space-dock, they essentially refill the ensign supply every time. “Naah, that’s just hear-say.”
On the ship itself, things start to get really weird. Like, when Dahl meets his commanding officer Science Officer Q’eeng, he notices tat everywhere on the ship they go, people really give Q’eeng wide berth in the halls. Dahl takes this to mean that Q’eeng is severe and that people respect him and get out of the way – he must be on his way to something important. As Q’eeng shows him to his station in the xenobiology lab, they find it empty. It’s only after Q’eeng leaves, explaining that when the rest of his team shows up they can show Dahl the ropes, that the rest of the team actually resurfaces.
They come out of the supply closet, essentially. “Doing inventory.” Over the next while, Dahl notices that they do a lot of “inventory” and end up on coffee runs at convenient times as Q’eeng appears. Dahl generally seems to be the only one who deals with the science officer face to face. Getting nervous, Dahl talks to the other ensigns that boarded with him. They think he’s nuts, but he’s convinced that something weird is going on.
Other strange things happen, like when Q’eeng asks for a solution to a seemingly impossible problem “or everyone will die,” and gives Dahl one hour, his team shows up after Q’eeng leaves and says “relax, dude!” They tell him to ask “the box,” a device in the supply closet. It gives the answer. He’s about to take it to Q’eeng when they tell him to stop and wait, and deliver it to Q’eeng at the last possible minute on the bridge. It’s all weird, and impossible, but it works. Yeah, something’s definitely up.
After some subtle blackmail, eventually Dahl gets some clues to the weirdness from his science team members. Everyone who’s been on board for a while knows to avoid the officers. Not because the officers are horrible people, but because the officers may ask them to go on an away mission, and that’s a death sentence, plain and simple. They’ve got the stats to back it up. The intrepid has the highest death-rate in the fleet… and it’s all low-ranking ensigns. Sure, officers get hurt, but they never die, and sometimes they bounce back from near-death with incredible and almost miraculous speed. Nobody knows why, and nobody asks, but they know to avoid missions like the plague. And oh, spend as little time on the bridge as necessary (another good reason to wait for the last minute on life/death information delivery).
From here, Andrew decides to get to the bottom of it. Through observation and learning, he eventually understands patterns for how to survive away missions, convinces his contemporaries that’s something up and helps them to survive, and meets up with a missing crew member who dresses like a sasquatch and hides in the bowels of the ship – better to be crazy than dead!!
Honestly, this is an unbelievably hilarious book. I really enjoyed reading it, because while they are unraveling the mysteries of what’s actually going on, everyone who’s anyone in the book always comes across as extra-stupid while the poor ensigns are left to wonder at how such poor decisions are made on a whim. They watch impossible coincidences, understand facts that they don’t remember ever having learned, and through the game of survival eventually figure out to get on top of the situation. It doesn’t go where you think!
The characters are fun – the ensigns range from the determined survivalist in Dahl to the paranoid turtlers on his science team, and they all act the part. Even the crazy dude has logic behind his insane facade. Their quest for survival takes them further than any of them imagined possible, and in the end the book has an incredibly sweet conclusion. I really did close this book with a smile on my face. Creative, funny, cliched (intentionally); they all combine to make an absolutely charming book. Any fan of Star Trek will love this, the same as any geek who grew up in the 80s should enjoy Ready Player One. In fact, anyone who hates Star Trek because of predictable tropes, plot holes and bad dialog should also love this. It’s a wonderful examination of a popular franchise and genre.