The longer something has been around, the easier it is to mock it. That is certainly the case with John Scalzi’s Redshirts. Not that Redshirts has been around that long: it was released in 2012 and made the running for a Hugo Award that year. (In the world of sci-fi, this is a Big Deal – if you see a book has won a Hugo Award, read it, because the experts in the field have agreed that this is the best novel/novella/short story/collection of the year.) No, Redshirts cheerfully mocks Star Trek, which has certainly been around for a while – the show will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2016 – along with the clichés that show and its spinoffs have spawned across the many universes of TV sci-fi.
Let me make one thing clear: I am an ardent Star Trek fan, a Trekkie, a Trekker. I’ll spare you the long-winded explanation of the difference between the two terms, because there is one, but that’s another story. But while Redshirts mocks my favorite fictional universe of all time, it does so with great love, a keen eye, and no little enjoyment, simply daring offended Trekkies to object, because true fans will know that everything Scalzi parodies…is not all that far from the truth. The show has holes, the show has flaws. Trekkers know: So what? But Redshirts is a joyful spin through the show’s problems and clichés from the ground up, the viewpoint of the disposable characters whose defining traits – those red shirts and expendability – have become a cultural byword.
The story goes through three stages: the simple parody of the redshirt’s point of view; the hilarious meta-fictional plot of the redshirts realizing they are in a badly written show and taking advantage of the badly written clichés of the show to track down the real-world authors and complain; and the simply baffled musings of said authors after the characters have gone home, as they wonder now what do I do? and has this happened to anyone else? Throughout, it maintains a sharp awareness of sci-fi fans, sci-fi writers, and science fiction in general, and loves it all even as it mocks it.
While hardcore Star Trek fans will spot most of the jokes, even readers who have only seen an episode or two here and there, or who only know the show by reputation, will recognize the clichés that Redshirts is out to get. It’s a Mystery Science Theater 3000 of books, 314 pages of humor and happy hunting of bad writing. Even if you’re not a Trekkie, it’s worth a read; if you ever plan on writing fiction, it’s definitely worth looking at for a pointed outline of what not to do. As a novel, Redshirts illustrates many of the pitfalls of lazy sci-fi, while simultaneously, of course, greatly enjoying falling into all of them and wallowing around for a while.
The Downs-Jones Library’s copy of Redshirts can be found at PS 3619 C256 R43 2012.