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.

I’ll Never Let You Go – The Grief of Losing a Dog

Just before I was in high school, my family got a dog. He was a small dog, and I’m honestly not entirely sure of his breed except to say that there was Chihuahua in there somewhere. We got him as a puppy, and this was at a fairly formative time in my life…I was old enough to take on a lot of the responsibility of him. He grew up through my high school years, faithfully waiting for me every afternoon when I disembarked from my ridiculously long bus ride. I made up funny voices for him to try to verbalize the expressive facial expressions that we came to know and love. I picked on him like a little brother. In college, I would come home on weekends and he was always there to greet me, faithful as ever.

When that dog died, it was a gut punch. If you’ve lost a pet, you know…there’s a grief process on par with losing a family member. I felt it for a while. Even though I didn’t live there any longer, it felt like a betrayal when my parents got a new dog. How could my old friend ever be replaced? It hurt that they tried.

This has come up a few times lately as our children are…passionately….expressing their desire for us to own a dog. I haven’t owned one since we lost that beloved friend. I don’t want to go through that loss again. The grief is not trivial.

Still, to go to the extremely expensive…and, I would argue, unethical…lengths of cloning a pet would be foreign to me. When I read this column about the industry that has grown up around this practice…yes, you read that correctly…I was more than a bit amazed. And, quite troubled, as well. What disturbes me is not so much the cost of doing this business, but rather the underlying assumptions that creep in through the writer’s descriptions.

If you read the column, you’ll notice that the writer feels the need to point out that cloning a pet is like resetting a phone…similar model, but new data. The comparison is to a cloned animal not having the memory or experiences of the original. I find it disturbing that our accepted cultural analogies to living things have become operating systems. I sort of get it…we are created as creators, and the lens through which we see our world is that which we have built…but there is inherent in this a disrespect for the living thing.

I’m not immune to this. Several years ago, we went through a weekend with no power after a nasty ice storm in North Carolina. When we left to stay with friends who still had power, our daughter’s betta fish didn’t survive the 40-degree nights. She was young at the time, too young, we decided, to have that conversation. So, as she hadn’t noticed when we returned, I made a late-night run to a pet store to insist to the mystified employee that I needed a betta that was a very exact color and appearance. They had one, and when my wife texted to check on my progress, I replied that I was inbound with the “Mark II.”

The source of this flippant disrespect for the living world around us can be found in abundance in the wording of the column. The process of a surrogate pet having the cloned pet is described not as a miraculous event of life continuing (even though it has been meddled with), but in purely scientific terminology. The new cat is an “embryo.” The focus is on the DNA of cells from the original animal, as though the animal is nothing more.

In his analysis of C.S. Lewis’ thought, Joe Rigney coins the expression “scientific reductionism.” He is using it to encapsulate one of Lewis’ central thoughts in the Abolition of Man. His definition is the audacity to believe that if we know all of the facts about a thing, that we know the essence of the thing (my paraphrase). That’s what I find at work here. Even though the subject of the column recognizes that her cloned cat is not the same as her first pet, there is a presumption that we have the right to artificially create a Frankenstein animal because of our grief process, because the animal has no substance other than its DNA. Essentially, in this view, the animal is no greater than the sum of its parts.

This reductionism is a fatally flawed premise. While mostly just gallows humor when we think about it in relation to pets, it becomes significantly more dystopian when framed in terms of humanity. Because, at its core, it requires the rejection of the recognition that humanity is more than just chemicals and electrons. There is no more value in life than that. When there is no more value in life, then war is acceptable. Murder of the unborn is acceptable. Mucking around with processes in our bodies that we don’t understand is acceptable.

Despite all of the science fiction through the decades that has warned us of exactly this issue.

Sometimes, when I stop to remember, and especially when I visit my parents today, I still miss that dog. Naively, I sometimes wish that he could have lived forever. I would never presume, however, to have a hand in re-creating his life, because I didn’t create it to begin with.

We’re playing God. And we’re enormously under-qualified.

Image attribution: Shadowgate under Creative Commons.

Dr. Who and Girl Power

TARDIS from Dr. Who. Image used under Creative Commons.As a rule, “gender-swapping” characters really annoys me. Marvel comics has been the worst about it of late, finding annoying ways to make characters like Thor and Wolverine female, and then wondering why they aren’t playing well with audiences. Surely audiences want strong female characters, right? As someone with two daughters (one of whom loves Wonder Woman), I can answer resoundingly yes, but re-purposing a male character into a female character does not a strong female character make. Rather, it shows a complete lack of creativity and belies the heavy hands of marketers relying more on their data than on common sense and dedication to the art or the medium.

I grew up with Dr. Who. My family watched it on PBS every Saturday night for as long as I can remember. The recent announcement that the Doctor will be regenerating as woman (while it was set up sloppily in the dialogue of this most recent, poorly-written season) makes sense to me, though. Is that symptomatic of a cognitive dissonance on my part? Not really. I actually think these examples are two entirely different things.

The Doctor was an ingenious character when written decades ago in what is now referred to as the “classic” series, in that a Time Lord‘s regenerations make him infinitely adaptable. Subtle quirks and personality shifts in each regeneration make for endless possibilities. The Doctor (or any other Time Lord) remains who he is at his core, but is a slightly different person each time, accompanied by a completely different physical appearance with each regeneration (although, to be fair, David Tenant and Matt Smith always looked remarkably similar to me, but I digress). The key to what this imaginative, fantastic twist to the world-building accomplishes is the perpetual opportunity for a writer to explore “what if,” to ask what it would look like for this character to have a different set of personality traits while still drawing on the experiences of being impossibly old, to show us what would be different if this character were an old man or a young Millennial. There are a nearly infinite number of possibilities in the Doctor, and this has made Dr. Who one of the most original concepts in science fiction, as well as one of the most enduring.

So, if the Doctor can regenerate from young to old, why not regenerate as a woman? This sort of just makes sense, as a Time Lord (and pardon my descent into geekery here) is essentially a shape-shifter at the time of his or her regeneration. The writers have even more possibilities to explore now as they can enter into the question of what a feminine dynamic will bring to the character. We’ve seen something similar done creatively (if not explicitly) in good science fiction before, after all. The character of Dax in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine springs to mind.

These sorts of spins are the result of creative pursuits of the story, not poor editorial direction, as is the case with Marvel’s recent gender swaps.

Even DC Comics’ more traditional take on strong female characters is wanting in comparison. Characters such as Supergirl or Hawkgirl were often afterthoughts, a forced editorial choice to make a female version of a male character in order to gain readers. Not that this doesn’t ever work (I personally have always loved the strength of the character of Batgirl), but, in comparison to an original, strong female character such as Wonder Woman, the efforts fall short.

My point is that, if the writer’s intention is to create a strong female hero or protagonist (something more of which our literary landscape desperately needs), then do just that: write a new character. The genius of the Doctor is that he now has the ability to be an example of how this is done well, while drawing on decades of other great writing to build upon.

My hope is that this will be approached as creatively as the BBC has time and again displayed it’s ability to accomplish, with the notable exception of the tragically poor writing of this most recent season. I say that this is my hope because if this decision is reduced in practice to merely a gender-equality move…more “girl power,” as it were…then it won’t work. It will last perhaps a season, and be remembered as an ill-fated blip in the history of the Doctor.

If, however, it is left alone…if the story is served and the creative legacy of Dr. Who honored…then these nuances will occur naturally, and we’ll be left with an even richer speculative universe, asking all of the questions about ourselves that such a universe brings.

Here’s to hoping.


Image attribution: Mike chernucha under Creative Commons.

When All Time is Screen Time

I wrote once before about how I saw our culture of ever-present televisions screens moving toward, and yet narrowly avoiding, the dystopian predictions that once lay 20 minutes into the future. I occasionally wonder, of late, if we’re about 15 minutes after that.

I spend many of my waking hours in front of a screen. It’s the nature of what I do for a living. Our schedules are busy, and I notice our daughter craving attention more, and resenting the screens that pry our attentions away from her…until she has the opportunity to watch what she wants on a screen. Then, prying her attention away becomes the task at hand, fraught with a host of unpleasant crying and occasional tantrums.

Given how guarded we were with her screen time initially, I wonder how far we’ve fallen.

A few weekends ago, we were traveling to visit family. My parents took all of us out to one of their favorite restaurants, where we attempted to have conversations and catch up…the purpose, after all, of those sorts of trips. The issue was that there were large flat screens positioned for each vantage point of the restaurant, each showing different programming, so that, regardless of where one sat, one had television to watch. I tried very intentionally to remain focused on the conversation, but the television drew me back within seconds of each attempt. The hour that passed during that meal was essentially lost, at least for me, as I heard little and contributed less, victim to the distraction of the closed-caption onslaught of images that drew me back, back, back.

And, when I did manage to return, I found our daughter showing the disappointment which has become all too familiar, so strongly desiring my attention to shift to her.

A former physician for our family had a large waiting room. What I remember most about that waiting room is the cacophony. There were, again, flat screens on each wall, all muted and closed captioned, with a radio station playing from above, as well. Add the conversation around you from others waiting, and I did well to hear my name called. That waiting room was an exercise in creating a true attention deficit disorder.

The city where we lived shortly after moving to New England had a very attractive coffee shop. The atmosphere was quiet, the hearth comfortably warm, the drinks of high quality, the surrounding conversation always good, except for…the television in the corner that was always tuned into, of all things, Fox News. Want to kill a wonderful atmosphere? Blaring news programming will be most effective.

The point is, whenever the television is available, it wins. No matter how devoutly we may wage war against it in favor of giving our attention to those we love, the programming will always be too strong an opponent. So, while I’m not given to using war metaphors for my examples, I’ve determined that the only manner in which to effectively combat such an enemy is to avoid the conflict altogether. When we don’t have an option? When the enemy awaits us, innocently disguised as the normal expectation in a waiting room or a restaurant? We lose. We’re set up for failure. It’s over before it began.

And I watch our daughter’s excitement when I am finally able to close my computer for the day and divert my eyes from the screen to meet hers, to engage in her world of play and imagination. Hers is an excitement that’s wonderfully contagious, and yet the kind that is borne of finally being able to grasp something that has previously proven so frustratingly elusive.

I watch this, and I realize how widespread the casualties of this war are, and how very, very important it is that we find a way to escape with what Salinger so well described as having one’s f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.

What Doesn’t Fit?

Disclaimer: I’m not a scientist.

I do, however, watch, read, and write science fiction with a good deal of passion, and so I try my best to understand science. This usually isn’t a problem because I grasp theories and concepts pretty quickly, I just sometimes need them explained to me in more simplistic terms than the jargon of their discipline.

Here’s the thing with science-fiction, and I think that I can say this with some reliability as a source since I’ve been immersed in the genre from a young age: nothing kills the validity of the book/film/episode like an inaccuracy in the premise. Science-fiction is built on concepts of things that are somewhat scientifically plausible, and asks “what if?” they became a reality. In space opera science fiction, this can be worked around a bit by positing a world in which enormous scientific advancements in humanity have made what were once outlandish theories into everyday life. Hard science fiction is more immersed in the data of scientific hypotheses…and, I confess, often over my head in most realms. I can be conversant in some things however, and sometimes things are used incorrectly in a way that anyone could guess with only a little thought.

This popped up in an episode of the Alphas that I watched over the weekend, in which an inaccurate application of sonar was used as a critical plot point. What was really curious about this mistake is not that the ability of the character in question was implausible from a scientific point of view, but rather that it likely would not be called sonar. The wording in the script created the issue.

Any scientists that may be reading, watch the episode (season 1, episode 9) and correct me if I’m wrong.

When I’ve directed plays, one of the most common problems I’ve worked with in new actors is consistency in characterization. There’s a moment of synergy that happens when an actor finds the character so fully that the character is on stage instead of the actor. I used to call it the “spark” when I watched a play…the moment when you find yourself believing that you are watching the character instead of an actor. There can be a moment of lapsed concentration, though, a split second in which the actor does something as they would do it instead of the way the character would do it. Sitting and crossing your legs, for example, when the character wouldn’t cross their legs or sit that way. When these split-second lapses happen, it breaks the illusion of the play. The audience will almost always notice, even if they can’t pinpoint why the scene suddenly feels wrong.

Presenting scientific inaccuracies in science fiction has a similar way of breaking the illusion. Even when dealing with the completely speculative theories of fringe science, the premise has to be explained in a manner that makes it somewhat plausible to the audience or reader. I suppose it bothers some of us more than others, but I think anyone watching or reading science fiction would find themselves aware of something wrong in the scene without necessarily immediately being able to identify what that something is.

Inaccuracies in acting can spoil a scene on the stage, and inaccuracies in writing or directing can spoil a scene on the page or screen. Research and editing fixes these inaccuracies easily enough, though. Perhaps it’s an issue of not rushing a finished product in order to ensure enough time for this research and editing? That would mean a world without deadlines.

I could certainly live with that.

Photo Attribution: INTVGene  under Creative Commons