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.