Book Review: John Scalzi’s Redshirts Is Self-Important Twaddle

By Josh Tyler | 9 years ago

Named after the unfortunate, red shirt wearing Star Trek characters who always died first during the original run of the show, in theory John Scalzi’s Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas tells the story of those other guys. This is being billed at a look of the world of sci-fi adventure through the lowly crewmembers who hang around in the bowels of the ship doing the jobs nobody notices only to die in the teeth of some weird monster on an alien planet.

But it isn’t.

The truth is that Redshirts is barely even a science fiction novel. Instead it’s a self-indulgent meditation on the creation power of writers. Every writer goes through this at some point, becoming so impressed with his craft that all he can write about is, well, himself. That’s what’s happened to John Scalzi and now the brilliant author of Old Man’s War has delivered a dud of the most cliche variety.

It has a few great moments. All of them happen on away missions where lowly ensigns try to figure out ways not to get killed while their superior officers hog all the glory. Unfortunately, none of this is real.

It’s not long before those lowly ensigns discover that the reason they all keep dying is because they’re actually characters being written by some hack as part of a script for a bad television sci-fi series. So they set out to confront their writer and set things right in their universe.

Yes, it’s that kind of book.

This has been done before by others, usually to disastrous and boorish effect, though occasionally it results in something brilliant. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is a great example of the ways in which this premise can work. It doesn’t work here.

Shocking though it seems coming from a proven writer like Scalzi, aside from its dodgy, self-important premise Redshirts is just poorly written. Much of the plot doesn’t make any sense and Scalzi never bothers to go into detail on the nature of the worlds he’s created. The first half of the book, for instance, is spent entirely on the starship Intrepid. But nowhere in Redshirts is Intrepid described. I have no idea what kind of ship it is, what it looks like, how many people are on it, or how long it takes to move around the cosmos.

The same vagueness applies to his characters, who all have names, but no physical appearance. Nothing in the book feels tangible, it’s all scribbled down like a bunch of half-formed ideas which don’t always connect together to make any sense. The book jumps from one moment to the next, propelled by all the cliches writers always use when they try to tell stories about how important they are, stories which almost never really deliver worthwhile text for their readers.

Had it actually told the story hinted at by its title, Scalzi might have had something. But this book is far more interested in glorifying the power of the almighty author than looking at the reality of being a red shirt in a sci-fi universe. So feel free to throw Redshirts on a pile with all the other self-important twaddle that occasionally vomits forth from otherwise pretty good writers and hope John Scalzi gets back on track with whatever he writes next. Redshirts isn’t worth even a second of your time.

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