Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Book Review Club: Redshirts by John Scalzi

(This is the September 2012 edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list of other reviews, click the link at the end of this review.)

You need only know two things to sum up my thoughts on Redshirts by John Scalzi: while listening to the book, I laughed out loud and I cried. I don't often cry when reading books. The last time was the seventh Harry Potter book, but I expected to when I cracked that book. When I cued up the audiobook of Redshirts, I didn't even see it coming, which is, to be honest, better. So, if you want to stop reading this review right now, go ahead. If you want more details, read on.

Redshirts is John Scalzi's parody/love letter to Star Trek. After a funny yet unexpected prologue, the novel introduces Ensign Andrew Dahl, newly assigned to the starship Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union. (Think Enterprise) Dahl and his new group of friends start to get accustomed to their new duties and lives aboard the Intrepid but the seasoned crew members all act weird. It soon becomes apparent that the members of the Away Missions (off the ship for you non-Trekkies) always seem to face some heretofore alien presence. Said alien almost always inflicts bodily injury or death to a member of the away team, yet the senior command staff never suffer any harm. It's as if the lower staff members are jinxed to die if they go on the missions.

To put this in context of Star Trek, let me explain. In just about every single episode, Captain Kirk, First Officer Spock, Doctor McCoy, and some member of the the crew, nameless until the first commercial break, wearing a red shirt, perishes. For the rest of the episode, the lead characters emote over the death, emerge victorious by the end, and live to trek on another day. If you ever wondered what it was like to be a member of the Enterprise crew who didn't have a job on the bridge, this is your book.

Where Scalzi provides the bulk of his humor, early on, is in the myriad ways the crew employ to avoid going on an away mission. Naturally, Dahl gets himself assigned to one and, while he is injured quite badly, he survives. The other crew member does not. As a long-time fan of Trek, I was laughing at all the obvious references to actions done in a 1960s-era television show for dramatic purposes and what really might have happened were all this stuff real. Wil Wheaton, who played Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation, provides the narration with just enough snark to truly bring out the best in Scalzi's prose. He reads the boisterous captain's lines with gusto, the science officer's lines with calm precision, and the rest of Dahl's friends with skepticism that borders on incredulity.

Now, the story turns on a plot device that I loved. In fact, as a seasoned crew member gathers Dahl and his friends to explain his theory as to why all these occur on Away Missions, I had a thought: what if Scalzi did This Thing? Well, cool as it is, he did. I will not give it away here because I want you to be surprised.

The full title of the book is Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas. In short, these are three epilogues that resolve some of the more human aspects of the story and, for me, these are what gave this book its emotional depth. In the final two codas, I was listening while doing something else which is one of the best reasons to listen to audiobooks. As the second coda wound down, I paused and felt the tears sting my eyes. You know, I thought, if that coda got me this way, I knew I was in for it as soon as I learned the subject of the final coda. I had to get up and walk away from everyone as I listened to the last coda. It got me, and it got me good. It got me so good, in fact, that, later that day, I could barely get through a retelling of the story to my wife without breaking down. Not sure she's ever seen me that way over a book.

You know what? I haven't seen myself that way, either. I loved this book, both for the laughter and the tears. It moved me, and isn't that what a great story is supposed to do?

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pattinase (abbott) said...

Wow. This books sounds pretty special. Tears, laughter, what more can you ask for.

Barrie said...

Wow. I am so curious now.... Great review, Scott!

Randy Johnson said...

Loved this book myself. My reactions at the end were a bit different, but what the hey. Everyone is affected on different levels.

Scott D. Parker said...

Patti - I can't ask for anything more. The older--and more emotional--I get, the more I'm able to see the heart of things and overlook the quibbles in favor of a larger impact.

Barrie - One of the best things about this book is its not a bunch of SF lingo. It's SF lite, to be honest, the kind of SF book you might find in a grocery store.

Randy - Would love to know your reactions at the end. I've read some reviews that think the book could have/should have ended with the main narrative. If so, the book still would have been good, just not as deeply moving and wrapped up in a tidy bow like the three codas did for me.

Fishing Charter Skagway said...

Just reading your description of the book sounds awesome. Putting it on the to read list. Thanks for sharing this book.