Review: Redshirts

Redshirts by John Scalzi
(TOR, July 2012. Hardcover, 317 pages)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Damn you, John Scalzi, for making me giggle helplessly at death. A quick, fun read.

–+–

The title of John Scalzi’s new novel, Redshirts’, is as irresistible as the premise. For those not familiar with the term ‘redshirt’ the first chapter serves as a quick introduction. On his first away mission, a young ensign is unprepared and overwhelmed. Trapped on a rock and surrounded by ‘landworms’, he fires into the dirt, driving the voracious predators into a frenzy and then decides to make a break for it. He is devoured before he reaches the tunnel entrance, of course. The captain utters a few words of commiseration but the reader gets the sense the situation is all too familiar. The loss of a low-ranked crew member, new and untried, barely mars the mission. A redshirt ensign is expendable.

In fact, every away mission led by certain crew members ends in disaster…for someone else. The captain always survives, as does his chief science officer. Lieutenant Kerensky is less fortunate, he is often injured. He always recovers, however. Any accompanying ensign is at risk and even the superstitions cobbled together by the terrified crew of the Universal Union Capitol Ship ‘Intrepid’ don’t always prove true. The death of one ensign does not necessarily provide protection for the others and the greenest crew member doesn’t always count as a reliable sacrifice.

A handful of new ensigns quickly pick up the fact something is amiss. The crew scatter when the captain approaches or an away mission is planned; closets suddenly need reorganising. When picked for a mission, they bid tearful goodbyes to friends and then bicker amongst themselves over laws of averages and then they die. The new ensigns, led by Andy Dahl – whom the captain repeatedly calls ‘dill’ – hunt for answers.

In Science Fiction, all is rarely as it seems. In ‘Redshirts’, it’s really twisted. The loss of low-ranked crew members is not entirely due to incompetence, nor is it merely coincidence. Some other factor is in play and once it is proposed, it makes a horrible kind of sense. Even the crew members who chose not to believe the explanation find it difficult not to be affected by it the very idea of it. I don’t want to ruin the surprise in my review, however, so I’ll leave it to the reader to discover just what is happening on board the Intrepid.

John Scalzi writes funny books. ‘Agent To The Stars’ is one of my favourites and I can remember laughing so much I was asked to read in another room. ‘Redshirts’ is written in a similar style. Despite the body count, I giggled my way through it, soft chuckles turning to outright laughter at one particularly senseless death. Yes, I laughed when someone died. I felt bad; I liked the character and had hoped he’d make it through to the end. The novel is a quick read, I finished it in about three hours and thoroughly enjoyed myself, even though I was not as entertained by the Codas at the end of the book.

Scalzi’s wit and humour works as well in his more serious novels, but reading ‘Redshirts’ felt a bit like taking a well deserved holiday. It’s a great book, one I’ll re-read and recommend to others.

Written for and originally published at SF Crowsnest.

View all my reviews

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