[Book Review] Where no man has gone meta before

redshirtsBook Review: Redshirts by by John Scalzi

This book was talked up so much that almost nothing less than a comic masterpiece could have met my expectations. I was also just coming off reading three Bujold books in a row, so my humor bar was set high.

And so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that this book didn’t quite meet them.

In case you haven’t heard about this book, here’s the setup:

In a Star Trekian style universe, Ensign Andrew Dahl joins the Intrepid, a spaceship that explores the universe and fixes problems. He soon realizes something screwy is going on. The crew is acting weird and every Away Mission seems to involve some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces. And while the senior officers always survive, at least one low-ranked (red shirt uniformed) crew member is, sadly, always killed, often in the craziest of ways. As he starts digging into this mystery, the craziest theory begins to make the most sense: Are they characters on a campy science fiction show? 

For all the time I spent hearing about the book, the premise turned out to be more exciting in my imagination than the execution. The scenes were clever, the dialogue was disappointingly flat (remember, I just read a bunch of Miles books in which each conversation is a pure wicked delight to read), and the story raced along supported mainly through its situational humor – how absurd to be the extras for a group of fatuous and vapid heroes whose usually sane world is occasionally turned topsy turvy by a story narrative.

Although it had an excellent set up and beginning, it plummeted again with a disappointingly simplistic conflict resolution that I feel I’ve seen before.  Watch out: spoilers ahead!

The story characters travel across time and space to confront their creators. It feels like the kind of writing that every author tries at least once when struggling through writer’s block, that really fun episode of Supernatural, and a dash of Galaxy Quest. I didn’t mind it so much as it didn’t delight me. Which is an indictment all of in itself, considering what I thought I was getting.

The book also briefly touched on a couple truly fascinating paradoxes, but never actually explored them.

For example, if decisions made by the story writers affect the decisions of the space ship in the 2456 fictional universe, does that mean that actions taken by the crew will ricochet back to affect the actors?

When Finn drugs Duvall to keep her out of the Narrative, and ends up replacing her in an alternative storyline, had the situation already been pre-written (a last minute disagreement in the writer’s room, for example), or did Finn actually change the Narrative? Equally, what would have happened if Andrew and the rest of the junior officers had killed themselves? Would that have been caused by an actor’s guild strike, or caused the actors to quit, or would they have been unable to conceive of the very idea because it was not part of their story? Similarly, what about revolting, taking over the ship, and so forth. Would that have been written into a story? Or would that have been the story itself making them try to rebel?

The question of free will comes up. While Andrew was able to break out of the narrative of the science fiction television show, he was still a pawn in a larger story about him rebelling against the show. So was anything he did real?

This was what I was actually wondering about while skimming the flat dialogue and unamusing banter.

Side note: The epilogue in which three “real” characters come to grips with their new reality were the most substantive and clever bits of the book in terms of cause-effect, second only to the story opening. In three short sections we revisit the actress who played Jenkin’s wife on the show, the show writer, and the director’s son as they try to come to terms with the insanity of meeting fictional characters.

Canary Verdict:

(It’s less that it was bad, and more that it just wasn’t great. Two and a half canaries.)

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