Sunday, October 28, 2012

"Redshirts" by John Scalzi

Redshirts should be right up my alley: sci-fi! humor! action! The book is based on the tendency of Star Trek to kill off random unnamed characters (wearing redshirts) in whatever conflict of the week was occurring. In his book, Scalzi takes these unnamed redshirts and makes them his main characters, then follows them as they begin to realize the extraordinarily high death toll of low-level crew members who go on away missions. Though I'm no Trekkie, I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with my family, and I'm a fan of more current sci-fi space shows like Battlestar Galactica. So, it was especially disappointing when Redshirts was such a let down.

First, the characters. Though there are a number of "redshirt" characters, they're virtually indistinguishable from each other. Each is given a basic back story (Dahl studied at a religious order; Duvall is a flirty and forward woman), but that back story never plays a role in what they say or how they act. Though some of their interchangeability could be blamed on their very existence as redshirts (who are, of course, completely interchangeable), that explanation doesn't make the book any more fun to read. Without caring about the characters, I'm not going to buy a story.

Secondly, almost the entirety of the book is dialogue. I actually began hoping for a paragraph of description. Instead, it's constant speech as characters expose and discuss what's happening. And, because the characters are virtually interchangeable, so is their dialogue. As names popped up of who was speaking, I had to pause and try to remember who each person was. Nothing about one character's speech distinguished him or her from any other character.

As the book hurtled toward its end, things became more and more unbelievable (which, again, I suppose could be some sort of meta-commentary on the state of poor sci-fi--but that still doesn't make the book better!). The number of people who rather easily believed that fictional characters were alive and visiting them was rather staggering. And, since I didn't care nor could I distinguish the characters, it didn't really matter to me if everything turned out right.

Once the story ends, the book itself doesn't end, but instead continues with three unnecessary "codas" about other characters. The first is utterly dull, the second is vaguely interesting but unimportant, and the third makes little sense other than providing an expected happy ending.

There was some great opportunity for parody and satire in Redshirts that is wasted, though the book does a good job of pointing out some of the funnier tropes used in space sci-fi. There was room to explore some issues around that. Why do we rely on silly tropes? Why can't we create drama without death? But, Scalzi largely ignores these issues to instead create a fast-paced and mostly hollow novel.

I feel like I've said this several times recently, but I think Redshirts would work better as a movie. The pacing might feel less frenetic, and it would help to have visuals on each character in order to distinguish them. But, until the movie comes out, I'd skip the book.

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