On John Scalzi’s Redshirts, or: Ave, Captain, Morituri Te Salutant

I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be,
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two…

– T.S. Eliot

There’s a character type, originally created to build drama, that has instead become the most enduring running gag in science fiction.

And there’s a particular clothing item, of a particular color, that has been forever ruined by said character type.

If you know anything of the genre, then you may have an idea of where I’m going with this.

Or you may not…

The redshirt, of course, began life (as it were) as a supporting character on Star Trek.  As a member of the Enterprise‘s security detail, his job was to accompany the senior crew on their away missions and ensure the safety of the team.  But as a character on the show, his purpose was to build suspense and create a sense of danger by dying.

And dying again.

And dying again…

Since then, the Redshirt’s legend has been both mocked and embraced by a couple of generations of geeks.  (I’m sure no one will be surprised to learn that my favorite example is Guy Fleegman, Sam Rockwell’s character in Galaxy Quest [a film that will get a post of its own someday].)  He’s found his way into nearly every major sci-fi franchise.

And now, at last, he’s become the hero of his own story.

Redshirts, the latest novel by John Scalzi, starts out as little more than a Star Trek pastiche, albeit a very clever and very funny one.  After a typically gruesome and ridiculous demise sets the scene, we meet Andrew Dahl, who will become the de facto leader of the newest recruits to the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union.  As our ensigns navigate the ship’s power structure, they quickly realize that things on the Intrepid aren’t… quite… right.

Of course, there are a few things not quite right on the Intrepid.  And the high ensign mortality rate is only the beginning of an odyssey that takes our heroes, the novel, and readers, beyond the realm of parody into something… more.

There are twists I will not and cannot spoil here.  But what I can and will say is that as Dahl and his friends race to save their lives, Scalzi slowly and subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) introduces bigger ideas into his story.  And even as it maintains the humor of its early chapters, Redshirts slowly and subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) becomes a much more ambitious novel, a meditation on mortality, creativity, loss and love – in short, a commentary on the human condition, in the classic sci-fi tradition.  And by the end, when three codas reflect on the story from three unexpected perspectives, you may be surprised by how much the novel has moved you.

Or at least I was.

If you’re a sci-fi geek, Redshirts is worth checking out, at the very least because of its theme song.  Yes, it has a theme song (by Jonathan Coulton), and like the book, it’s both funny and poignant:

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.  Thanks as always for following along – until next time, “be seeing you…”

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