A Review of “Redshirts”

Image of the cover for Redshirts. Used under fair use for review purposes.
The cover for Redshirts. Used under fair use for review purposes.

The first book by John Scalzi that I read was The President’s Brain is Missing, which was a great novella and, I think, a great introduction to Scalzi’s writing style. His science fiction in quirky, imaginative, and tends to not be the sort of thing to read in a quiet place unless you are really good at keeping yourself from bursting out into laughter. There is a wry and often hysterical sense of humor that’s present in everything I’ve read by Scalzi.

I read that novella back in the Before Times, and I’ve dipped into his work occasionally ever since, most recently his Dispatcher and Lock In series (which are great as audiobooks). I picked up Redshirts at our local library recently because it piqued my interest a bit, although I likely wouldn’t have had it not been for already knowing the author’s work. I’m glad that I did.

Scalzi has a way of exploring some really deep questions about our human condition in his work without the reader actually realizing that he is doing so…philosophy with a backward wave, if you will. This is difficult to describe without reading his work, but when you do, I imagine you’ll have an experience like mine in which this heavy realization hits you hours after you’ve put the book down that your mind has been churning on this really deep concept and you don’t know where it came from. That said, Redshirts is a bit more overt with what it’s trying to say, although the vehicle that it uses for exploration is no less imaginative.

This novel is, at its surface, a deconstruction of Star Trek and other popular sci-fi series, taking its name from from the expendable, nameless characters on Star Trek away missions (always in a red uniform) that have a habit of dying for dramatic effect. In Redshirts, these characters (who are functioning in a remarkably Star Trek-like universe) begin to realize that the fatality rate among their number is exponentially high, while the senior officers always make it out of any near-death experience without issue. They begin to ask why, and hilarity…and philosophy…ensue, as they discover that 20th century Hollywood writers are writing characters that mirror them in scripts for a (you guessed it) popular television program. Whatever happens to their characters, happens to them.

If we peel back a layer of the onion here, I think that one of the things Scalzi is doing in this multiversal sort of adventure is to drag into the light the lack of quality writing in a lot of American television, specifically in science fiction. The fun that is poked at a lot of Hollywood culture is difficult to miss, but it feels good-natured in the sense that someone who has lived in that culture gets to be the one that makes fun of it.

When we peel back another layer, things get heavier, because this novel is fundamentally grappling with fate vs. free will, or, in more theological terms, predestination vs. moral free agency. As our characters begin to plan how to stop these events from taking place (and thus extend their remarkably short lifespans), they also ask questions about whether or not they can stop these events. If one is destined to a certain fate, after all, can that be changed? From a broader perspective, do we have any control at all over our own lives? What if God is simply permitting our deaths…or worse, causing them…in a completely nonsensical way? Is there, in fact, any meaning at all to our lives, or are some of us merely supporting or incidental characters in a cosmic drama?

Something that I particularly appreciated about Redshirts is that, as these questions are asked, our protagonist, Andrew Dahl, who has attended an alien seminary before joining the Universal Union (read: Starfleet), pushes back on the nihilism that is the result of these questions spinning out of control. He responds (my paraphrase) that no coherent belief system has a god that would act in such a manner.

I also appreciate the gift that Scalzi has, and the space that this book makes, for the deeper implications of these sorts of questions. One of the characters has lost his wife in one of these nonsensical deaths, and the grief that we walk through with this character is real and lasting. We also are taken into the other side of that grief, in which every day is suddenly so extremely valuable because we know that love and purpose…perhaps even a Divine purpose?…are pervasive and worth experiencing for however long we are privileged to do so.

I often associate Scalzi’s work with humor and lightness. Redshirts pushes back on that framing of the author. This novel will be particularly entertaining if you, like me, grew up in a household that watched Star Trek every week. Even if you didn’t, though, it’s worth the read, but buckle in and get ready. What seems like a routine reading mission will leave you wanting to take evasive maneuvers, because you won’t be ready for the questions that it makes you ask.

It will, however, be worth the adventure.

The Before Times

In my last post, I referenced a time period in my life that I’ve began referring to in my head as “the Before Times.” I also consider them to be “the Good Times,” times before certain decisions were made. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that I will be referencing that concept more frequently over the next few months, so I thought it worthwhile to talk about what I mean by this, what that time entailed, and why I was thinking about it a lot to begin with.

Elizabeth and I had been married about 3 years, and we had gotten this fantastic apartment. Dual income and no kids, we were living the lives of successful post-grad-school professionals. I was still pondering “what next,” and we were very actively involved in creative ministries in our local faith community. I had not changed careers yet. I was helping people, every day. We were dreaming about what we wanted for our lives. Netflix subscriptions still mailed DVDs every month. The Internet was not yet in everyone’s pocket.

There was this specific moment that I recall in which I was home from work, and was looking out the window later in the evening as several others began returning from their workdays. I remember them seeming obviously stressed, obviously having put in a long day (given the time), and thinking that I was thankful to not be in the corporate machine. I never wanted to be in the corporate machine. I was, in that regard content.

Through a series of life events, I made a career change that was a great financial move, but entailed being drawn into the corporate world with which I never anticipated being involved. I didn’t know how negative an impact that would have at first. I wouldn’t learn until much later. I remember our oldest daughter being born just before that career change…the time that I was able to spend with her. After the career change, the time vanished, but in a deceptively subtle way that you don’t notice as it’s happening. It was years before she regained that time. I shudder to think that perhaps our youngest never had that time.

I realized this when I was briefly unemployed last summer. Those sorts of crisis events have a way of giving you space to focus on what’s important. I’m blessed to be out of the corporate world now and am regaining my faculties.

There’s something else that contributed to those times, all those years ago, being better. Technology had reached a point where it was helpful in many aspects of our lives. There was a “sweet spot”, as it were. We’ve passed that now. We’ve reached a point in which we’re willingly serving the technology instead of the technology serving us.

As I think back to those times, I remember an idea that I had once to write a book, sort of a memoir, about all of the places that we had lived and some of the neighbors we had encountered. I may have even started a manuscript for it somewhere, long ago. We’ve had a lot of neighbors over the years, and I’m amazed to think about how our lives have impacted each other, briefly been a part of each other. Those are holy encounters, encounters which are sadly less prevalent, or at least less appreciated, now in the age in which we serve our technology.

I want to go back to the Before Times. I entertain this desire occasionally by watching television series from that period. I would love to go back and re-make some decisions, but, as Billy Joel pointed out, we can’t go back, only forward. I’m wondering what from that time I can bring forward into this time, because I’m convinced that our family will be better for it.

Prayerfully, that will be a success.

Into the future we go….

Why Yes…I Do Want To Do Things Differently in 2024

Happy New Year's 2024. Used under Creative Commons.

Dearest reader…especially those who have been with me here for a while…can I just tell you that 2023 has been a crazy experience?

I feel oddly reminiscent of when I wrote about the change of decade in 2020. I wrote a post so full of meaningful reflection and optimism, only to go falling with the rest of the world headlong into a generation-defining event. In a somewhat similar way, I journaled about New Year’s resolutions at the beginning of 2023, and the year began perfectly fine. Then, as fear about the economy shifted, I was laid off from my job, as were many of my colleagues. Needless to say, the summer was tumultuous as a result. In the middle of this, we switched the kiddos to a new school and we began attending a new faith community in a city that we had only moved to a little over a year prior.

A little change is a good thing. Too much is chaos.

The strange thing is that I’m not sure I would have had many of these things go differently, because I experienced a great deal of life change and personal growth through that trying time period this summer. I also truly experienced the depth of Romans 8:28 is a manner that I’m not sure I ever had before, in that, after scrambling to find employment and all of the panic that went with that experience, I ultimately ended up with what could quite possibly be the best job that I’ve ever held. I feel as though work holds its proper place in my life, and only its proper place, in a position that I find fulfilling. In short, I couldn’t be happier with that part of my life.

“All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Julian of Norwich

All of that to say, while there is now a happy ending, life was strictly about survival for a bit of this year…thus the notable absence of writing here.

So tonight, as the Christmas lights on the outside of our home are illuminated for the final time of the season and I watch the clock tick down to 2024, I’m remembering the New Year’s resolutions that I made for this year, and how many of them received no attention because life got in the way. And, I’m debating whether or not making such resolutions is really just an exercise in futility, if I’m to be honest.

Still, there were good intentions there, and some of them I want to keep in 2024. I still want to watch less and read more, as well as writing more…here, finishing my novel, as well as other ventures. I have the time and the mental space to do that now, which is such a gift that I don’t intend to waste.

I want to re-establish contact with old friends from the before times (I plan to post about what I mean by that soon). When I dropped most social media, I didn’t think through how to maintain contact, and so I’m leaning heavily on my contacts application and hoping that a lot of those details haven’t changed for people.

I feel incredibly optimistic about 2024. I have learned and grown this year, and have emerged both with a newfound perspective on what’s important, and with the space in my life to work on implementing what I’ve learned. We can’t know what lies ahead…I know many who are filled with pessimism about the upcoming year, which is an easy state in which to arrive if you read more than a few minutes of news. I’m holding out hope, though.

My friend, I don’t know what 2023 held for you, or what 2024 will hold. I pray it’s all working out for the best for you. I’d love to hear from you about how it’s going. Please keep in touch, and I’m planning for more space for conversation here in the coming year.

Here’s to 2024!

Image attribution: Carol VanHook under Creative Commons.

Wisdom in the Past Tense

I’ve been reminiscing quite a bit lately about a time, a little over a decade ago, in which I’m convinced the world was a better place. Certainly our life as a family was in a better place, at least, but that isn’t the overall theme of this post. We were living in a different state, then, and had made close friends with a couple several years older than we were. I miss that relationship more than I can express today, as we enter a difficult period of life (perhaps more on that in a later post), because, whatever we went through in those days, this couple had experienced at some level. Job changes, moves, the birth of our first child, the loss of grandparents…they had experienced these life events, and were there to give us support, encouragement, and wisdom. We could learn how to walk through those events because of their experiences before us.

Historically, human beings have looked to people older than them for wisdom. Wisdom is an interesting thing. There’s an entire genre of Biblical writing dedicated to it, and we all crave it, even though we may call it by a different name. In the same way that the knowledge that you are not alone gives strength, the knowledge that someone else has experienced what you are experiencing (not in the abstract, but someone with whom you are actually close) and can give relevant advice is so life-giving. Even if that person gives no advice and is just present with you as you walk through a point in life, the awareness of their experience causes their presence to give you strength.

“Respect your elders” used to be the advice given to children, and gray hair was seen as a sign of honor.

Culturally and, I think, Biblically, there is a responsibility that comes with being that elder. There is, or at least should be, a social contract of sorts that says you will be present in the lives of your younger friends, that you will endeavor to give the best advice that you can when called upon, and to eschew the giving of advice on a area in which you don’t have experience. Getting older isn’t just getting discounts and free meals…you’ve lived through some stuff, and now you have a responsibility to assist others who are living through the same stuff after you.

In academia, this showed up in subtle ways. Older sources are respected, weighed more heavily. Newer research must stand up against rigorous review in order to contradict what has been known for some time. This places greater checks and balances against error or…dare I say this?….fake news. Today, though, in most disciplines, this is not the case. In technology specifically, newer is always better, older is always bad. That shiny new idea is to be revered simply because someone was able to do it, never bothering to ask whether or not it might be a good idea. Respecting the wisdom of elders here is almost impossible, because the elders are expected to abandon their experience in favor of the shiny new idea. The hive mind demands it. Old is bad. In with the new.

Which leads me to entertain the idea: what if we’ve created a world in which it’s impossible to trust in the wisdom of our elders?

What if we’ve created a world in which it’s impossible to trust in the wisdom of our elders?

What if we’ve ensured that nothing will function “the old way”, or at least not well (think of out-dated software)? What if we’ve altered the world so irrevocably that we’ve created enough black swan events that the wisdom of our elders doesn’t…even can’t…apply? Think about this dystopia for a moment. Events that can so drastically change society that there is no going back can, I would argue, invalidate certain specific wisdom by definition. Experiencing something like this once every few generations is recoverable. In my lifetime alone, though, I’ve seen so many….the invention of the Internet, the normalization of hate that followed the election of the first Black president of the U.S., the social upheaval during the Covid pandemic, artificial intelligence…each of which has shifted our culture in dramatic ways, ways from which it will not return. So many of these events in such a short period of time could cause some wisdom to just not apply any longer, and all of these events are events of our own creation.

I’m no longer young. I’ve gone through a lot of things in my life, and have things left to live through. As one gets older, though, there’s a certain comfort that experience brings. When moving to a new area, starting a new job or a new career, embarking on a new life journey, there is comfort and direction found in the ability to assume that, because certain things tend to go a certain way, those certain things are or are not good ideas in a given scenario. If we’ve managed to make our existence so unpredictable by our constant disruptions that we can longer count on this experience, then we may well have invalidated the wisdom of many who have gone before us. The hive mind wins. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

That is perhaps the most dystopian future that I can imagine, one that can’t be salvaged short of Divine intervention.

Image attribution: Thomas Hawk under Creative Commons.

What To Do With Anxiety?

If I could articulate one truth about life as a follower of Christ, it’s this: we live many areas of our lives in a state of cognitive dissonance between what we know to be true, and what we experience. Our emotional response to an event is frequently incongruous with our theological understanding on the same event. In other words, we know that God will take care of us, and can look back to see how He always has, and yet we’re in this tension of “will He this time?” when confronted with an event.

There’s a lot of writing out there examining the question of whether or not anxiety is a sin. Various writers fall on both sides. Many writers who fall on the side of it being a sin, I think, are in a mindset that treats psychology and mental health as being somehow inherently invalid, that every problem is a spiritual problem. So before I go further, let’s dig into that statement for a moment. First, every problem is, in fact, a spiritual problem. We know a great deal more today about both physical and mental well-being than we did even a decade ago. Theologically, I’m a trichotomist. That is, I believe that the body, soul, and spirit are three separate and distinct aspects of humanity’s existence. Each person has each aspect. I find it obvious that each of these aspects inform each other, and impact each other. Spiritual health, mental health, and physical health inform each other. It is difficult to maintain mental health without spiritual health, or physical health without mental health, for example. Accepting that, then every problem becomes a spiritual problem, because our spiritual state impacts every problem that we confront. Human beings are amazingly complex, and we are not living in the condition in which we were designed to live.

I think you see where I’m going with this.

There’s a lot exegesis of the the Greek involved to decide whether or not you believe that anxiety is a sin…that is, if it’s wrong, and thus subject to a need for forgiveness. I am not convinced that it is, but even if you are, you’ve experienced anxiety. Given a frightening enough scenario…imagine being confronted with the potential of a catastrophic loss of income, or with a war, or an assault…the human condition is such that it will experience anxiety, especially when secondary to trauma. And while there are many definitions of trauma, perhaps, I would argue that we all experience a trauma at some point. I heard a mental health professional say once that, if trauma were effectively handled when it occurred, that the DSM would be a pamphlet. I think that speaks to how critical it is that we accept this as part of the human condition, to not avoid it, but to confront it.

I recently went through an incredibly stressful period with life events. So many of what I understood to be stable aspects of my life were suddenly thrown into question. I’ve experienced a lot of anxiety over the past few weeks, as would, I think, anyone in a similar position. Through that experience, I’ve learned many hard lessons, grown as a person and as a Believer, and found a great deal of peace.

The first step in living with the cognitive dissonance that I mentioned is to recognize that it exists, and to not deny it. The Christian faith is full of hope, but, as always, we have to approach that hope from the starting point that it is needed, which is rather difficult to do if we deny a problem to begin with. So I guess my point here is, don’t run from it. Don’t theologize yourself into thinking that you shouldn’t be experiencing anxiety about a situation, that it should somehow make you question your faith. That way leads to legalism, and, if anxiety is what you’re experiencing, then it is freedom that you need.

And I pray that you find it.

Image attribution: Kevin Dooley under Creative Commons.