I should have liked this book. I like Star Trek, and I like John Scalzi's blog. I enjoyed another book of his called "The Android's Dream". This book, however, just didn't work for me for several reasons.
Maybe my expectations were too high. From the hype surrounding this book and from the first few chapters that were available for free online before the book's release, I was expecting something clever, funny, and very subversive to the genre. It was sometimes clever and occasionally very funny, but subversive? Maybe in the obnoxious, masturbatory way that writers sometimes write about talking to their characters (but this is a writer writing about writers talking to their characters so it's meta!! yeah, no, still obnoxious), but otherwise an awful lot of tropes and cliches go largely unchallenged. I guess I expected an intelligent exploration and undermining of the underlying assumptions and cultural structures that allow us to so easily discard 'extra' characters we don't know even while we root for the ones we know and love. Instead what I got was a book-length equivalent of an internet meme-style image of Gene Roddenberry looking at a lolcat in a red shirt with a caption stating "redshirts are people tooo!!!!111!" Well... if you ignore some of the deeper implications.
Most of the characters sound the same--except for the characters based on the original main Star Trek cast, most of them have the same snappy, too-clever Buffy-style voice. I couldn't tell who was who a lot of the time, but it really didn't matter because they were mostly interchangeable. Wait... wasn't the interchangeability of secondary characters supposed to be under scrutiny here? The only reason I could sometimes tell who was talking was on the rare occasion that 'she' was used instead of 'he'.
On that note, let's talk about female characters. "Redshirts" hearkens back to and draws its parallels directly to the original Star Trek series. You know... the one where Captain Kirk seduces a new gorgeous, scantily-clad alien bimbo woman every episode. The one where the network outright forbid Roddenberry from having a woman as a first officer. The one where the women's MILITARY UNIFORMS were tiny miniskirts. The one where female characters were primarily there for one of three purposes: background eye candy, fleeting (and often tragic) love interest, or seductive villain. Sorry, villainess
So what do we get in "Redshirts"? The single important female character's main role revolves around the seduction of one of the Star Trek-based main characters. Yeah.
And the guy who has figured it all out... did he figure it out because he wanted to live? No. Did he figure it out because he wanted to blow the whistle and end redshirt attrition for the greater good? No. Did he figure it out through sheer scientific curiosity? No. He figured it out because his wife was killed on an away mission and he went nuts, giving him the motivation to learn why, why? WHY? was wifey gone. So his wife was both redshirt AND a classic woman-in-the-refrigerator. How very
original. How subversive. I literally rolled my eyes when I read this clever revelation.
Most of the rest of this review is pretty much an extended spoiler. You've been warned.
So a bunch of the interchangeable redshirts try to change their fate, which could have been a neat story. Instead, it became an uncomfortable descent into the murky, sometimes ethically ambiguous realm of "real person fiction". The redshirts find that they are actually fictional characters in a fictional universe, and go to the "real" universe (which, like the "fictional" universe of the redshirts, is perfectly recognizable with clearly identifiable characters--only instead of fictional versions of fictional characters, we now have fictional versions of real people) to convince their creator to quit killing them off willy-nilly. Several of the characters meet their "real" actor counterparts; one of the 'extra' actors describes one of the main actors as quite a jerk, which was kind of off-putting since the main actor in question was easily identifiable as a real person.
Then comes the really unsettling part. Their Gene Roddenberry-esque creator is depressed and won't talk to anyone because his son was in a motorcycle accident from which he is unlikely to recover. The novel neatly wraps up with the son saved by switching bodies with his fictional-universe counterpart and not-Roddenberry agreeing to take better care of 'extra' characters.
I had a weird, unpleasant feeling reading this part, and I wasn't sure why. This plot point felt so oddly specific after the (clearly deliberately) generic romps of the "fictional universe" characters that I was actually compelled to look up Roddenberry's son to see if anything untoward had ever happened to him. Google has nothing to report about Gene Roddenberry's son ever having an accident... but his oldest child, daughter Darleen, died of head injuries from a car accident in 1995.
Bear in mind here that I was expecting a light-hearted yet insightful deconstruction of some of the more absurd and abused genre tropes. In fairness, it should be noted that Roddenberry himself died in 1991, so he was never in the position that the not-Roddenberry character Paulson was in the book. At this point, however, I'm forced to wonder what the point of this story was. All stories have a moral, or a message, or multiple messages, regardless of their creator(s)' intentions. I can see the attempt in "Redshirts" to subvert the sexism of Star Trek, but I think it was a complete failure. I can see the layers of meta, I can see how the main characters of "Redshirts" (the redshirts themselves) are drawn deliberately flatter than the secondary characters (the "real world" not-Roddenberry characters) so that the reader sympathizes with not-Roddenberry and crew. I can see the concept that everything we create and put out into the world, no matter how seemingly trivial, has real meaning and potentially even real consequences.
Unfortunately, the deepest layer I can see is pretty much an exploitative re-envisioning of the actual death of a real woman, altered in classic Star Trek woo woo fashion. At its core, "Redshirts" appears to be a real person fanfiction story about Gene Roddenberry saving Darleen Roddenberry from death by car accident-related head injuries... by changing his Star Trek storylines and being nicer to his minor characters. Names have been changed to prevent a lawsuit protect the innocent.
Paulson's son's story in "Redshirts" bears enough resemblance to Darleen Roddenberry's real death that, especially given the direct and obvious parallels in so many other other characters, it completely derails the the novel. I'm not sure how better to put it than that it just feels wrong, especially given the "light-hearted romp", "funny", "loving ode" sorts of press this book is getting. There is a deeper stab into reality here that plays off like a video game Easter egg. After playing spot-the-reference throughout this whole "light-hearted romp" of a book, the realization that a major plot point changes a real life tragedy to a Trekified magic fix is a bit of a sucker punch. Maybe that was the point... but what a distasteful way to make it.
Maybe there is a deeper level of meta here that I'm just not seeing, or (I think more likely) maybe I've found a layer that wasn't intended, or at least wasn't intended to be so squicky. If the moral of the story was supposed to be that "redshirts are people too" and that we need to be careful about what we create and and put out into the world and that all lives should be treated with respect rather than as throwaway plot devices, then greater care should have been taken not to twist a real person's story into a ridiculous plot device and cheapen a real person's death. That's a twist I'm just not comfortable with. This is why, as I stated earlier, I consider real person fiction to be shaky ground.
Of course, using real people in fiction has been done--and has been done in Star Trek itself--many times, albeit usually with historical figures from more distant history. I loved "To Your Scattered Bodies Go" by Philip Jose Farmer, for example, which is real people fiction that includes literally everyone who ever lived up to a certain point. Where exactly the line is for what is okay and what isn't when using recognizable real people in fiction is a matter for debate, but I was uncomfortable with the not-Roddenberry plotline of "Redshirts" even before learning about Darleen and even moreso after. Your mileage may vary.
Are there other messages in this text? Certainly... but anything you take away from this story is complicated and contaminated by the problematic not-Roddenberry plot and its tidy solution.
The codas at the end, featuring an internet chat log (written in the first person), a follow-up on the problematic character described above (second person), and a trite and predictable romance (third person), make it clear to me that this was an indulgent experimental work, and in my opinion it was not a successful one. All of the tropes and cliches that were explored in the text, like the flat characterization, the sexism, the handwavium mechanics, and the writer interacting with his imaginary creations seem to fall flat and do more to reinforce the cliches than to subvert them. The creative and unlikely methods of death suffered by many redshirts were great, but not enough.
All in all, I was very disappointed with this book. I was on board with it and enjoying it--despite its shortcomings, as I still expected them to be addressed--right up until the big reveal about why all the redshirts were dying on away missions. It even could have worked until they came up with their clever fix. At that point the story went in a direction that felt wrong both for the narrative and wrong for the reasons discussed in the gigantic spoiler above. I gave it two stars because it does have some genuinely funny moments and a few insightful passages, but there wasn't enough to carry the novel or counterbalance its flaws.
I leave you with this, probably my favorite passage, that more or less accurately predicts and responds to my reaction to this book:
"Jesus," Kerensky said, looking around. "You people. I have one of the most incredible experiences I'll ever have, talking with the one person who really gets me--who really understands me--and you're all down here thinking I'm performing some sort of time-traveling incestuous masturbation thing. Thanks so much for crapping on my amazing, life-altering experience. You all make me sick." He stormed off.
That's fandom for you.