HomeAll postsRedshirts by John Scalzi

Redshirts by John Scalzi

a commentary by Nalini Haynes

Redshirts is an enjoyable commercial science fiction comedy for those who have seen TV shows like Star Trek and Stargate and who are prepared to laugh at the flaws of these shows. If that’s what you’re looking for, read no further: you’ve found the novel for you. What follows is a spoilery commentary dissecting Redshirts, so stop reading now.

I mean it. Go no further. You. Shall. Not. Pass.

[Horrific spoilers begin]

Contrary to publishing trends today, Redshirts has a prologue. This prologue establishes the fate of lowly ensigns in away teams although I’m not sure that the colour of the ensign’s shirt was actually mentioned. New exposition-type information popped into the ensign’s head before he died, explaining his back story and the fact that he wasn’t aware of some of this back story until he was about to die. He also foresaw the overblown melodramatic consequences of his death in his last moments. We are also introduced to some of the bridge crew who, of course, survived.

Chapter one introduces the reader to the five new ensigns who are about to fill vacancies on the space ship Intrepid; vacancies invariably created by grizzly untimely deaths on away team missions with key bridge crew who always survive. The high fatality rate of non-essential personnel and resulting superstitions evolving in the crew gradually unfold as the new crew members experience life on the Intrepid.

A controlling entity called The Narrative takes over, melodramatically and senselessly causing deaths in the most ridiculous situations, leading to the conclusion that the Intrepid is in a universe affected by a TV series called Chronicles of the Intrepid. Our intrepid ensigns (pardon the pun) must therefore travel back through time to reason with the show’s producer and writer to save themselves from pointless annihilation serving to substitute dramatic action for quality writing.

Each of these characters is a two-dimensional caricature, only discovering backstory as needed for The Narrative: when a pilot is needed, two characters suddenly and without cause ‘know’ that another crew member is a qualified pilot. Worse still, no character is actually DESCRIBED: characters are named and gender is inferred by pronoun, nothing more is given. Nor are uniforms described.

No sets are penned: the author relies heavily on the reader to “[insert poorly written science fiction TV series sets, uniforms and characters here.]”

Poor science (consistent with the narrative) serves to transport our intrepid ensigns through time to reach 21st century Earth. When they reach Earth we’re told they stay in a Great Western, but if you don’t know what one of them looks like – or worse still, what one of them IS – then, as a reader, you’re screwed. Wikipedia and Google are your friend. Also Chuck the TV series is your friend because they land in Burbank, again with no description.

Right up until the time travel sequence the plot races along, with lots of nods and winks at the SF TV viewer who is ‘in’ on the jokes. Once they get to 21st century Earth the plot slows down and starts to drag its feet somewhat. Redshirts is a commercial SF comedy and as such should be the equivalent of a 90 minute movie, but due to extraneous scenes and labouring the point in other scenes, it starts to drag once on Earth. Redshirts becomes the 110-minute movie that should have finished at 90. It dawned on me later that the reason the plot began to drag is that extra material was shoe-horned in to this portion of the novel to justify the three ‘coda’ that serve as either three separate epilogues or as ‘bonus material.’ If the three ‘coda’ were treated simply as bonus material without the ponderous justification within the text, both the coda and the primary Redshirts novel would have benefited.

I have to stress here: Redshirts is an enjoyable commercial SF comedy, so take my comments in context: it’s all relative. I usually enjoy the time travel portion of these stories if it’s well-written but this portion felt laboured. I was pleased when the pace picked up and the main story finished. I was also surprised because it finished at page 230 while the ‘story’ continued until page 314.

What follows the main story are three ‘coda,’ stories in the first, second and third person about different characters and in a different style to the main story. The first coda, written in the first person, is about the writer who, upon realising his hackwork kills people, suffers writer’s block. He turns to that ever-reliable source of support and information, THE INTERNET. As you do. Expecting that he can put lots of morsels of information about himself online without anyone figuring out who he is. This is implausible AT BEST: what senior script writer in 2012 is so naive as not to see the problem with this course of action? I am reminded that this is a spoof of poorly written work. This coda is also filled with existential angst and meta.

The Coda for the second person was IN the second person.


It did not work. When reading a novel that uses the first person (“I”), it’s like talking to someone using the first person. That’s FINE. But the second person (“you”) seems to address the reader and jolted me EVERY TIME. Not only that, but the protagonist of this coda was male and a character from the story, so it DID. NOT. WORK. Writing “CODA II: Second Person” seems a desperate grab for the meta by breaking the fourth wall. Wasn’t the fourth wall already shattered then ground into powder during the story? ENOUGH ALREADY.

The coda for the third person was a relief as it was in the third person. This was a sweet if unoriginal romance. Of the three coda, this was the one I enjoyed the most.

In my opinion if the main story hadn’t focused on setting up the three coda, the plot would have kept its pace and romped in for the finish. Each Coda could have been treated like ‘bonus material,’ stand alone stories with added ‘deleted scenes’ if necessary.

When reading the coda, I started thinking ‘this author is getting paid by the word so he’s padding,’ but then I saw his acknowledgments.

“… first-line readers… assured me that the thing [Redshirts] was more than just a piss-take on televised science fiction (although obviously it is that too).”

It seems to be the three coda (what is the plural of coda? Codii? Codas?) are an attempt to make that transition from a piss-take to D&M (deep and meaningful).

DUDE. There is nothing to be ashamed of in writing a commercially successful comedy. NOTHING AT ALL. Trying to shoe-horn added depth into a piss-take by slowing the climax then adding codas DOES. NOT. WORK. Next time, keep the piss-take and the D&M separate and the pacing will probably be BRILLIANT. As it was, it was good. I could have given codas 1 & 2 the flick, but 3 was quite nice.

My final beef. The dedication. SERIOUSLY?!

“To Wil Wheaton whom I heart with all the hearty heartness a heart can heart.”

DUDE. Get. A. Room.

I mean, I’ve heard of bromance but this is waaaay over the top.



Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

[mailerlite_form form_id=1]