Gollancz, 2012, 309 p. Reviewed for Interzone 245, Mar-Apr 2013.
For the first two-thirds of Redshirts the thought recurs that it’s either the most intriguing piece of SF you have read in a long time or else a sad waste of dead tree. The set-up has replacement crew-members on a starship slowly noticing strange events occurring – especially to those who attract the attention of senior officers and are as a result assigned to accompany them on away missions, where, invariably, one of the minions is at best badly injured, at worst killed. So far, so interesting.
The trouble is that the main characters are barely worthy of the name, being more or less indistinguishable. Moreover we are treated to various mundanities of their lives normally omitted in fiction. Yes, they are supposed to be walk-on parts in a different narrative, a bad Science Fiction TV series from our time, and hence might be expected not to be fully fleshed – but they are the main characters in ours and doesn’t the reader always deserves more? Moreover, dialogue is rendered as “Dahl said,” “Duvall said,” “Hester said” etc making it feel like a shopping list. In addition the prose rarely rises above the leaden and workmanlike.
And yet the text plays games with narrative and with the reader, features characters who become aware of themselves as players in a story and who take steps to alter their fate. There is even a false ending, allowing Scalzi to address the reader directly.
Viewers of a certain 1960s US TV SF series – which bears a superficial resemblance to the scenario here – may have noticed certain … illogicalities. Scalzi clearly enjoys laying out the faults, the playing fast and loose with the laws of Physics, the lack of internal consistency, the black box resolutions, which can plague such an enterprise. It is generally not regarded as a good idea for a Science Fiction novel explicitly to refer to SF, yet given the subject matter here it would be remiss not to. Indeed the plot of Redshirts depends on it.
After the amended ending – and making up the last third of the novel Redshirts as an entity – we have no less than three codas, subtitled first person, second person, third person, each narrated in its subtitular mode, respectively by the writer of, and two of the actors in, the TV series. These comment on, illuminate and extend what has gone before. The writer is not cheered by criticism distinguishing between bad writing and being a bad writer, the two actors find their destiny in life. While the codas’ styles are disparate, and thus a welcome relief, the last still has dialogue framed like a shopping list. Crucially though, the characters in them feel real.
In the main narrative Scalzi shows he can do bad writing very well. (Now there’s a back-handed compliment.) If you don’t know what’s to come in the codas, though; if you’re not, say, reading Redshirts for review, that could be a fairly large hurdle to overcome.