Off the Beaten Trek: John Scalzi’s Redshirts
Posted by: Neil Hollands
The death of red-shirted crewmen from the original Star Trek series has become a part of our pop culture landscape. Most of us know that a “redshirt” is a sacrificial lamb, a bit of living collateral damage that will be sacrificed for the larger good, probably about the time of the first commercial.
John Scalzi’s 2013 Hugo and Locus Award winner Redshirts uses this in joke as its starting point. Andrew Dahl and his new friends on the Universal Union’s Intrepid can’t help but notice that away missions tend to be fatal for new crew like themselves. This notion is reinforced when a strange bearded man emerges from somewhere in the starship walls to warn them to avoid certain officers when a trip down to the latest planet is in the works.
This isn’t Star Trek exactly, but as the story continues, we discover that it is connected to Trek in a way that should make viewers think about their relationship to the shows they watch. I don’t want to give away the twists, but before many chapters have passed, Scalzi has taken us down the metafiction wormhole, thinking about what it would mean if our pop culture jokes about redshirts had a darker truth at their core.
Readers who don’t normally attempt science fiction should be able to follow and enjoy this. Even if they’ve somehow never taken a voyage with Captain Kirk or any of his followers, a one-minute explanation should give them all the back story they need. The novel is full of adventure, comedy, fun characters, and a little bit of pathos. There are some philosophical twists–especially in three “codas” that Scalzi uses to finish the book–that provide substance on which to base a healthy conversation.
If your book group takes a hankering to Scalzi, consider other books from his canon. Old Man’s War, Fuzzy Nation, The Android’s Dream, or Agent to the Stars would all make fine, funny selections for your group as well.