Have you ever finished a book that was so good, you didn’t quite know exactly how to explain the magnitude of its awesomeness, or convey how much joy it brought you, but you do know that you’ll be peddling it to everyone from your garbage man to the random lady on the bus? That is exactly how I feel about sci fi author John Scalzi’s most recent release Redshirts, a comedic spin on popular space opera tropes. The morning I finished the story, I bought my boyfriend a digital copy, which he promptly read over the course of a few hours. Maybe he devoured the book because he’s preparing to start the Every Star Trek Ever project and reading a deconstruction of “bad” science fiction stories seemed fitting, or maybe it’s because Scalzi’s latest sci fi is, at the very least, an immensely fun adventure (and at the most, effing brilliant). I’m going to go with the latter.
Redshirts is difficult to describe without giving away a few spoilers, but I will do my best. When the book begins, Universal Union Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the ship Intrepid, as part of the crew’s xenobiology lab. Not expecting to do anything much more than take inventory of lab supplies and go on coffee errands, Dahl is surprised when he’s recruited for dangerous "away" missions. Missions during which fellow lower-ranking crew members start dying due to haphazard errors and seemingly preventable mistakes, yet the senior officers continue to walk away unscathed, or if they do get hurt, they heal quickly. Additionally, these inexplicably “lucky” senior crew members display over-the-top melodramatic behavior and also tend to consult an odd black box that seems to magically provide scientists with answers at the most opportune moments. When Dahl shares what he has seen with his co-workers, they start to uncover secrets about their existence — and the fate of the entire Intrepid crew — that jumpstarts a truly memorable adventure.
After putting down Redshirts, I could not go a moment without finding someone who had read and equally enjoyed the book as much as I did (If only I worked for a magazine full of booklovers ... oh, wait ... ). I immediately turned to sci fi/fantasy senior reviewer Natalie Luhrs, who reviewed the novel, with squeals of OHMYOGDTHISBOOK! and ITWASSOGOOD! There was lots of metaphorical hand holding and jumping up and down in unison via Gchat (since Natalie isn’t in office). Redshirts unsurprisingly earned a Top Pick! from Natalie, who told me that, of all the things she took away from reading the story, this message was paramount: “Redshirts may initially appear to be a lighthearted jab at badly written science fiction stories, but Scalzi is getting at something more serious: people, even fictional ones, matter.”
If you’ve enjoyed pretty much any science fiction drama set in space (Star Wars, Star Trek, etc.), you’re aware that casualties of intergalactic battle are common, but what separates celebrated science fiction dramas from the, well, bad ones, is how these minor character deaths, that often come in large numbers, are treated. Either they’re a means to create conflict and propel the plot forward, or they’re the deaths of characters audiences are emotionally invested in, tugging at heartstrings and making us shamelessly weep in front of our preferred storytelling medium.
To help reiterate how the pointless deaths of arbitrary characters in science fiction and how it can impact the quality of a story, I’ll leave you with my favorite scene from the 1994 Kevin Smith-directed comedy Clerks. In this scene, the fate of the construction workers on board the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi — which was destroyed while under construction — is discussed: