On the spaceship Intrepid, low level crew members die at an alarming rate. The premise is right there on the cover:
They were expendable…until they started comparing notes.
Whether you have watched the original Star Trek series or not, most people know that the guy in the red shirt was going to die. In Redshirts, Scalzi explores what would happen if, rather than actors who went home at the end of a day of shooting, the characters were just going about their lives until everyone started acting dramatic and then some of them die? What kinds of theories would they develop? How would their behavior change? What scars would they have from the frequent nonsensical deaths of their shipmates?
On one level, it’s a comedic take on Rosencrantz and Guildensturn are Dead with characters realizing they are characters and challenging the author, who is not a very good writer. On another level it’s about free-will and accountability.
In the prologue, Ensign Tom Davis is on an away mission with the Captain and some senior crew. He becomes frustrated by the information that he and the crew were not given, the information that suddenly pops into his head, and the compulsion he has to do something he knows will kill him. And then he dies.
The prologue pokes fun at sci fi tv tropes and bad writing, but also illustrates the frustration not being in charge of your own actions and dying an ignominious death in service of a larger story arc. Ensign Davis is taken over by what Jenkins calls “The Narrative” and reduced from an autonomous human being to a poorly written redshirt.
We meet a group of new ensigns just about to begin a tour of duty on the Intrepid. Andy Dahl, Maia Duvall, Jimmy Hanson, Finn and Hester. These five figure out that there is something very odd happening on the Intrepid, and they take steps to break free from The Narrative. On the surface, it’s an entertaining and clever narrative with good characters and dialogue. You can stop there and this is still a 3.5 – 4.0 star book.
For all the time and distance travelled in Redshirts, it’s a compactly told story. There are consequences to characters taking on the system and changing it. Scalzi chooses to end the story of the Intrepid crew shortly after they resolve their conflict with the tv show. They are left to write their own stories. The three codas explore the consequences of characters asserting their autonomy.
In the first, the writer has to deal with being confronted by his characters, and by the fact that his scripts aren’t very good. He develops writer’s block because he is afraid to kill characters, and doesn’t know what to do. He writes about it on a blog and is eventually forced to confront that his writer’s block isn’t about fear of killing characters, but about not being willing to make the effort to create tension and drama other ways. He is given an opportunity to make better writing choices, if he is willing to accept he has become a lazy writer.
The second and third codas are about extras and their relationships with the characters they have played. An extra who was never bound by The Narrative is still freed from circumstances and given another chance to live. However, he has to accept that he has lived without purpose, and only he can change that. The third coda is lovely. A woman who had been a Redshirt extra on the tv show is given momentos from the life of the woman she played.
I listened to Wil Wheaton narrate Redshirts. As always, I enjoyed Wheaton’s narration. He and Scalzi were made for each other.