Redshirts is a fun and lighthearted send-up of all my favorite Star Trek tropes, akin to what I wish Star Trek: Lower Decks was like.
When Ensign Andrew Dahl is assigned to the Intrepid, the Universal Union’s flagship, he notices that his colleagues go out of their way to avoid the senior crew and away missions. Once he finds out just how many subordinates die during away missions, he sets out to discover exactly why – and how he and his friends can avoid becoming meat shields for their Captain and bridge crew.
This book came out in 2012 and has had the chance to circulate in the public mind, but Scalzi goes exactly where you think he’s going. Dahl and his friends end up getting very meta as they try to avoid being victims of the Narrative that commands the life of everyone aboard the Intrepid. Characters have all sorts of crazy theories, and get brutal in their attempts to survive at the expense of others.
There are a few novels about characters who realize they’re characters in a story, and I liked the way this one played out, for the most part. Sometimes it hit things a tad too on the nose for my liking, but I loved the pastiche of a lot of Star Trek staples – the last minute solution, the character who suffers and magically recovers every episode, wacky time-travel shenanigans and dodgy science. Scalzi obviously loves the source material, which makes him able to skewer it accurately, amusingly, and without making me think he secretly disdains it.
A lot of the world building in Redshirts relies on its readers knowing the source material. The world building is done lightly, and more to point out differences or flaws with Trek than to create a universe that feels its own. This works here, but only because the book is so meta (and because I’m a trekkie, so my mind filled in any missing worldbuilding details with trek details). For this reason I wouldn’t call this book a shining example of world building – if you’re looking for that, try Notorious Sorcerer for some classic fantasy world building, or Angel of the Crows for a look at how world building can be layered over a classic story.
The fun of these characters is that they’re painfully normal. Of course, a lot of Trek takes the time to focus on normal people problems, often as a B plot, but Dahl and his friends work well as stand-ins for the reader. They react as we would, if we were put in the ridiculous situations that a lot of Trek characters find themselves in.
One thing that I will ding Redshirts for is that when I sat down to write this review, I couldn’t remember what any of the characters were called. I finished the book a week and a half ago, I shouldn’t have had to look this stuff up. So maybe the characters are a little too normal. All the same, I didn’t find any of them painfully annoying to read about. I didn’t roll my eyes when any of them had dialogue or a showcasing scene. So things could definitely have been worse. But that probably knocks this rating down to a 3.5 for me.
Read Redshirts if…
- you want a lighthearted novel that pokes fun at Star Trek
- you want to read a well-written and unpretentious meta novel
- you think meta is stupid
- you want serious or hardcore sci-fi where the science makes sense