Like the “expendable” characters it chronicles, Redshirts by John Scalzi explores some unexpected depths and delivers both a satisfying tale and meta-tale.
The starting point is a question that surely has occupied many a college bull session since the 1960s — why is the life expectancy of security officers on certain television shows so short, especially when in the presence of senior officers? After a vignette describing the typical (and brief) career trajectory of an ensign assigned to the Universal Union’s flagship Intrepid that ends with a satisfying crunch for a landworm (albeit rather less satisfying for the hapless redshirt), the book follows Ensign Dahl and his friends. Newly assigned to the Intrepid, Dahl finds out very quickly that the longstanding military adage of “don’t volunteer for nuttin'” — particularly away missions — is key for a long, healthy career. Of course, he can’t avoid away missions forever, and when he ends up assigned to one, the fun really begins. Before the end, Dahl must figure out what’s really going on and take control of his destiny. The alternative is to become the star of a poignant little moment where the captain mourns his death — then sends a request to the UU Command for yet another bright young ensign.
Escape Rating from Galen B+: Although there’s plenty of fun to be had following Dahl as he solves the mystery in a “Lower Decks” setting, to say nothing of playing spot-the-sf-trope (and don’t try to turn that into a drinking game — that way lies cirrhosis), the initial premise wouldn’t sustain more than a short story. What makes Redshirts interesting is that it becomes a tale about story-telling. In fact, it reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman epic, particularly “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Dream Country. The characters in Redshirts find that their destiny is literally a story — and the question becomes who gets to tell the story.
Escape Rating from Marlene B+: Redshirts was definitely worth the wait. It was also one of the crazier things I’ve read. It’s much more meta than it is story, but it’s fun for all that. The willing suspension of disbelief that science fiction normally requires gets bent completely out of shape to serve the plot device, but it’s worth it to poke fun at the tropes we all know and love.