BOOK REVIEW: Redshirts, by John Scalzi

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John Scalzi's 2012 comic science-fiction novel, "Redshirts," is one of those books that starts off as a strong, even brilliant, comedy, then starts to think about what it's doing so much that it becomes weighted down by its own pathos. That said, it's still very much worth reading, and you don't even have to be a "Star Trek" fan to "get" it.

The premise is fairly simple: in one universe, a bunch of writers create a television show about a starship with a terrible track record for killing off at least one low-ranking crew member--a "redshirt" in the vernacular, so named because that's the color of their uniform tunics--in every episode; and no one really cares about these nameless, faceless, disposeable characters, not even the actors playing them.

However, in a parallel universe, the starship and its crew are all very real, and every time a character is injured or dies on TV in our world, the same ghastly fate befalls a character in the parallel universe. The crew there notice the high mortality rate on their ill-fated ship, but only a crazy old hermit living in the bowels of the ship understands what's happening, and has an even crazier plan for fixing it.

Now, you'll have to forgive me, but I gave my copy as a gift to a visiting friend whose job pretty much makes him a real-life redshirt, so I no longer have a book to use as reference, and am writing this review flying by the seat of my generously-sized pants. Therefore the details are going to be rather vague, not because I'm being coy, but because I just don't possess an eidetic memory. (Thank you, God, for Wikipedia...)

Okay--so after starting off with a number of screamingly funny ghastly deaths, several of the ensigns find out about the hermit, who lets them in on his theory about why the upper officers will suddenly act as if they're emoting lines from a play, and why the redshirts have the life span of a fruit fly. He also points out that one of the upper officers seems to have more lives than the proverbial cat, narrowly surviving all manner of horrific accidents and injuries, and that any crew member standing close to him is guaranteed to survive: apparently, in the "other" universe, that character is the sympathetic "victim" who can't really be killed off, but who can be put in perpetual mortal peril. Sticking with him guarantees that you'll make it back to the ship, since somebody has to be there to rescue him.

After the protagonists prove this to themselves, they figure out a way to cross over into "our" universe to try to convince the writers of the TV show to stop mowing them down like wheat. This they manage to do with the typical handwavium and the help of "the box," a mysterious, almost magical device that can generate answers-that-actually-work to almost any problem ("Need a life-saving serum in twenty minutes? Just ask The Box!")

Once they arrive in "our" world, the story gets a lot more straight-faced and ponderous, but there's still a lot of laughs along the way. The ending is great, just the sort of twist you expect science fiction TV series writers to be dying to pull. The three codas tacked onto the story are poignant and wrap up some of the loose ends, but they kind of change the mood of the actual ending a little too much.

John Scalzi, who happens to be president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, has written numerous books, articles, and has been nominated several times for the Hugo Award, winning it twice, as well as many other awards, so he knows what he's doing. He does it well. He's even been nominated for a Hugo Award for what was essentially an April Fool's Day prank short story alleging to be an excerpt from a non-existent novel. Even though this book is clearly a loving parody of the many iterations of the "Star Trek" series, Scalzi was a writer and creative consultant for the "Stargate" TV series. He blogs extensively, writes non-fiction guidebooks, and likes to mess with people's heads on a regular basis.

If you've never read any of John Scalzi's works, "Redshirts" would be a good place to start.

My friend the real-life redshirt thought so.