On the original Star Trek television show, any time Captain Kirk beamed down to an uncharted planet, he would take along a couple of nameless ensigns clad in bright red for security. Inevitably somebody on the away mission would die, and it certainly wasn’t going to be Captain Kirk. In Redshirts, John Scalzi, author of Old Man’s War, asks why.
The Starship Intrepid seems at first to be a parody of the Starship Enterprise, except that, seen through the eyes of the “redshirts”, all of those nameless ensigns do have names and lives, and they quickly notice that they’re keep dying in statistically absurd numbers whenever the senior officers are around. The newest batch of crew members don’t want to believe it at first, but after seeing one nonsensical–and deadly–event after another, they are forced to conclude that something is very wrong aboard the Intrepid. Soon, Ensign Andrew Dahl and his friends begin constructing ever-more-elaborate plans to protect themselves and, just maybe, save all the redshirts on the ship.
Scalzi presents Redshirts with a unique format; the novel itself is followed by three “codas”, which might have been called epilogs, except that they are really short stories in their own right. These three codas wrap up some loose ends and fill in the stories of three important secondary characters who don’t get as much exposure in the main story as they deserve.
Redshirts is good quick read for sci-fi fans and great fun for Star Trek fans because Scalzi so effectively lampoons all of the absurd tropes and inconsistencies of the original television show that so many people love to point out. The book’s biggest shortcoming is that it is too, well, short. It comes out at only about 75,000 words, even with the three codas, leaving a lot of the characters’ stories underdeveloped. (For comparison, a typical sci-fi novel is at least 90,000 words.) Still, for all its brevity and even some occasional genre-savvy preachiness, I liked the book as a reader, found it useful as a writer, and enjoyed its fresh perspective on the eponymous characters.
My rating: 4 out of 5.