My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It’s the year 2456 and Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid. As a junior officer, he’s assigned at the bottom rung of the ladder in the biochemistry lab. His fellow low-ranking officers seem to be a nervous bunch who always find excuses to be away from the lab when one of the senior officers comes around. Lots of other suspicious things are happening on the ship that don’t quite add up. It sometimes appears that the laws of physics get suspended act strange and dramatic times.
It turns out, he has good reason to be suspicious. Despite the fact that the captain and the rest of the senior officers often act reckless, even criminally incompetent at times, they always manage to survive dangerous encounters. One astrogator, Lt. Kerentsky, seems particularly capable of defying the odds. The junior officers, however, aren’t as lucky. In fact, on nearly every away mission, at least one junior officer dies.
Okay, if you haven’t seen the obvious parallels to Star Trek, the title of “Redshirts” should give it away. John Scalzi’s novel is based on the idea that, what if the junior officers on an Enterprise-like ship starting noticing that they have such an unusually high mortality rate even as the senior officers seem indestructible. As they start asking questions, they come to a disturbing realization: They are extras in a Sci-Fi TV series and not a particularly good one. Pretty soon, Dahl and his friends concoct a plan to get out of this unfair cycle. Yes, there’s some familiar ground in that the characters find out that their lives are actually a sham set up for the entertainment of the others. This territory has been covered before in The Truman Show and an episode of The Twilight Zone, but the existential questions are given a greater weight given the life and death consequences at stake.
Redshirts is satire that is aimed squarely at the Star Trek canon, but like the movie Galaxy Quest, it’s satire done with love. John Scalzi pokes fun at the tropes, plot devices, and technobabble that have define the Trek universe. The story is great fun.
The novel includes three codas, one each written in first, second, and third person. The codas wrap up some details about the show behind the lives. The codas aren’t necessary for the main plot, but they are enjoyable character sketches in their own right.