John Scalzi breaks the mold with his latest novel Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas. At first it presents itself as a science fiction genre novel, which would be expected from Scalzi, but it’s a little more than that. It has action, it has romance, and it has strange and wonderful technology, but at its heart it has humor.
Fans of Star Trek or any similar science fiction television show should feel right at home between this book’s covers. Even the title offers a nod to where this novel draws a lot of its themes. For those not in the know, the term “redshirt” comes from Star Trek, but can be more broadly applied to any character that is labeled as expendable and will ultimately face his or her death in an amazing and properly dramatic matter.
It is just such a person whom the novel opens with. When Ensign Tom Davis is attacked by Borgovian Land Worms of all things, the captain says, “I should have known.” At this moment Davis proclaims what every right-minded person sitting on their couch watching this on television would proclaim, “You should have known? How the hell could you not have known?” From that first page forward, the tone is set. We are watching a television science fiction show, but we are being presented it through the eyes of the expendable crewman, and when Tom Davis inevitably dies just a few pages later, we are not surprised.
In short order Davis is replaced by Ensign Andrew Dahl, who becomes the focal point of the novel. He quickly discovers the plight of an Ensign on the always ill-fated away missions. He associates himself with a cast of equally ill-fated characters as they begin to ponder their place in all this. On the starship Intrepid “crew deaths are a feature, not a bug,” and the plot is out to get the characters. Together they have tasked themselves with finding a way out of the episodic death spiral. What ensues may have more depth to it than the comedic nature of the book may imply. Eventually Scalzi gets around to asking, what is a writer to do when he “just found out that the people he’s been making up in his head are real?” Given Scalzi’s background as a writer for the show Stargate Universe, he has probably asked this question of himself.
His overall writing style hasn’t changed much. If you are unfamiliar with his work then it can be most easily described as, more action less details. You will be hard pressed to find many character descriptions and even harder pressed to find a description of a room beyond the properties that will be utilized directly in the coming scene. The dialogue is snappy and focused, as is the action. In the later third of the novel he even takes steps to stride outside of his usual comfortable third person narrative. The full title of the book is Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, and it is those “codas” that are rather interesting. Each coda tackles a new part of the narrative from a different writing perspective. That’s right you will find first person, third person, and the ever elusive second person present in this book. His success in these perspectives can be debated, but each one serves a proper purpose.
Humor has always been a major fixture of Scalzi’s work, but here it is handled differently. In his previous works the humor was just a side dish to the main course of science fiction, but in Redshirts the science fiction falls into the background and becomes merely present to provide a context for the humor. It is great to see someone try to take up the reins of Pratchett and Adams, and in that regard this novel feels more like a debut than the work of a seasoned author. That is not said to downplay the quality of writing which stands with any Scalzi novel from the past, but he is a seasoned author treading new ground, a rare feat to be sure.
Comedy science fiction was in many ways killed by both Pratchett and Adams, though not through any fault of their own. The success that they garnered also drew in many copy-cats, and these copy-cats did not fare so well. They left behind an industry that was distrustful of new authors trying to take a stab at this particular blend of genre, but Scalzi has found a back door. He is no mere copy-cat, as his writing style is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the two previously mentioned giants. Instead he stands on his own in the field, and his new position amongst them is earned. I for one wouldn’t mind seeing more from him in this often over-looked genre.