Monday, 17 March 2014

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Wow, this is the wrong morning to try to review a light-hearted book. I'm sleep deprived, stressed about family issues, and about to cry if someone so much as looks at me sideways. I contemplated putting this review to the side and writing it later. Fuck it. Let's see how it goes.

It's almost too bad I read this before the present moment, because this is exactly the type of book I like to settle down with when I'm stressed. It's entertaining, it isn't too taxing, and it might make me smile. The characters are likeable, the plot interesting, and if it didn't make me tense, well, there are times when that's just what I need. Like today, for instance.

I didn't find it that funny, though. Given the cover blurbs promising hilarity, I feel like I ran smack into my issues with finding American comic fiction not that funny. Amusing, yes. Absolutely. But I don't think I even giggled during this one, although there were the occasional smiles. It might be me. But there it is.

This is, of course, a riff on the joke about being absolutely screwed if you're wearing a red shirt and are on a Star Trek set. But this is real life! Or is it? I enjoyed the meta-ness of this novel, the idea of narrative influencing actions across divides otherwise impenetrable.

The main characters are five new redshirts on a spaceship with an alarmingly high death rate. Much higher than any other ship in the fleet. And arguments that they're the flagship, and do more adventurous stuff, hence the death rate? Don't wash. (But one of the main characters is a scientist. Shouldn't he be a yellowshirt, technically?)  They come into a ship where people avoid the commanding officers like the plague, because being picked to be on the away team is the same as a death sentence.

In fact, this is so extensive that warning systems have been put into place, as the new crewmates discover when they are suddenly deserted by a room full of compatriots who are mysteriously gone for coffee (or hiding in a storage closet) when the commanding officers stroll by. And when on away missions, the doomed redshirts seem to find themselves under a compulsion to act in just exactly the way that is going to end up in a dramatic death. And don't even mention the poor lead Lieutenant who pays for his handsomeness by almost but not quite dying multiple times a month.

There is a nice wink to the metaness of the metaness near the end, after the redshirts have launched a desperate attempt to convince The Powers That Be to change the narrative. (I can't be any more specific without giving so many spoilers I don't think I could post this.)

While I enjoyed the novel, though, two out of the three codas felt superfluous. I liked the first, and the questions it posed, although I think those questions were implicit in the story as a whole, and I'm not entirely convinced I needed my hand held through them. But still, it was entertaining. The second and third, though, are even more hand-holding, and it starts to grate. It feels like Scalzi doesn't entirely trust the reader here, and has to make sure they're taking the message exactly the way he saw it. It's not that they're bad messages, they're just a bit anvilicious. I would have a preferred a bit more trust in the readers to finish it off.

But all in all, it's an entertaining read. It would have been just the thing today. Too bad nothing on my current docket fits the bill quite as well as this would have.

Booklinks:

I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

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