Book Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

The dude in the red shirt dies first.


Aim for the guy who’s not in the opening credits!

It’s a joke as old as Star Trek, that has ingrained itself in pop culture. It’s always good for a cheap gag, either through a character referencing it, or maybe a little bit of black humor when you need to off some expendable extras to up the stakes.

But can you base a whole novel on it?


John Scalzi thought so. I have to admit, I was a little bit leery of the book at first. It starts out pretty much as you’d expect: there’s a starship called the Intrepid, there are away teams, and there are lots and lots of gruesome fatalities. Scalzi is particularly good at that last part, bringing over some of the grit and horror from stuff like Old Man’s War to a cheesier Sci-fi setting, which makes it all the more jarring.

If Scalzi left it at that, Redshirts would be amusing, but hardly anything new (much less Hugo-worthy). Thankfully, Scalzi soon moves past the cheap gags (mostly), and starts playing around with the ideas behind the setting. The crewmen and women of the Intrepid are very much aware of their ship’s ridiculously high fatality rate, and so they do everything they can to avoid the captain and other officers at whatever cost. Things get even stranger (and more metatextual) when the crew start thinking about the ‘rules’ of the setting. Star Trek is referenced. The term “The Narrative” is used. And things go off the rails from there. I’d rather not go into the details, on account of spoilers, so I’ll just say that I’m sure Scalzi had a great time writing the book.

Redshirts isn’t a perfect novel (but what is?) The main story is solid and entertaining, but the last third of the book consists of three codas– basically, short stories to act as epilogues and tie up some loose plot ends. Not to mention they pad out the word count, but hey, Scalzi’s got a contract to fufill. The first of these was my favorite, since it dealt with writing (again, in a rather metatextual way), and the third had a lot of heart to it. On the other hand, the second one (written in second person– i.e. “You look at yourself in the mirror”) fell flat.

These flaws, however, are minor– if nothing else, the central Redshirts novella is well worth reading for anyone with an interest in science fiction, particularly the kind of sci-fi that winds up on TV. It’s a comedy– but like the best comedies, it’s got genuine heart behind it. Redshirts deals with fear and loss and more than a little existential dread– but hilariously so.

And hey, it won a Hugo in 2012, so that makes it kinda literary, right?


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