I read John Scalzi’s Redshirts last night. In one big gulp. It looked fun and it was fun, though there was an adjustment period of about three chapters where I had to get into the right mindset. This is basically Christopher Moore territory, so if you like him you should like this and vice versa.

The premise: The redshirts on a ship greatly resembling the Enterprise have an alarming tendency to die on away missions. And they know it. A paranoid culture develops among the underlings on the ship.

Premise including spoilers that aren’t spoiled on the dustcover, but which are spoiled a little further on in my review: One smart redshirt, Ensign Dahl, finds out that the ship is actually fictional. Sometimes the Narrative takes over.  Physics goes out the window and plot contrivance rules instead.

It’s a quick read– most of the book is conversation, much of it snappy– with an extremely affectionate satirical streak.  If you liked Galaxy Quest, it’s that, with an entirely different plot.

I worry about things getting all meta, because I think the author can get carried away– as in, say, Alan Moore’s Black Dossier.  The emotional temperature drops and the work’s own Narrative goes off in a corner to sulk.  I think Scalzi takes on the challenge pretty well.  He treats the redshirts’ dilemma as an sf problem and figures out what smart people would to about it.  If he verges into a little meta-meta territory at the end, well, arguably it would be dishonest not to.

The book has a somewhat odd structure, especially if you’re used to some modern novels where the climax hits approximately two pages from the end.  Scalzi wraps up the plot and then adds a three-part coda that makes up about 1/4 of the book– wrapping up loose ends.  This isn’t bad, it’s just unusual.  In effect he thought of three more ways to play with the idea, and I think it does deepen the book and add human interest.

I picked up the habit of referring to sf, from a period when many people insisted it could as well be “speculative fiction” or “science fantasy” as “science fiction”.  Redshirts is kind of a poster child for that policy, as it sure isn’t about science.  It does what most sf does: take an idea and run it through its paces.

The early form of the idea explored here is what if fictional characters were real people who could reflect on their situation and attempt to change it?  Now, it’s fun to play with this concept, but perhaps Scalzi realized that it was not exactly connected to the real world, as the coda more or less restates it as Authors really give their characters shit, don’t they?  What’s up with that?  Which can be an actual real-world issue for writers, and to a lesser extent for readers.  E.g. Is it cheap or bad to kill off your minor characters?

Obviously, yes, if you do it routinely.  On the other hand, it’s boring if you never put your characters in trouble, and it’s unrealistic to never deal with the pain and death of real life.  And on the third hand, unrealism isn’t a crime, it’s a challenge.

I mentioned that meta-narrative can make the emotional temperature drop– if the pretense that the author isn’t there is dropped, it’s no longer a story about how a character overcomes a problem, it’s an internal monolog within the author.  Scalzi avoids that, but partly becuase he never allows the emotional temperature to rise very much, either.  We believe in Dahl’s predicament while the book is open; when it’s closed we kind of forget about him.  He wants to escape The Narrative, but there’s nothing else he wants, or gets.  I wonder if Scalzi realized this, since the coda works hard to insert some extra human feeling.

(One minor point that bothered me was that the characters refer explicitly to Star Trek.  It’s a dumb old convention, presumably enforced by evil corporate lawyers, that obvious satires are hidden using transparent fake names, but then why also refer to the actual model openly?)

(Another minor point, but a cool one: Scalzi has figured out some techno-gobblegook that actually makes Back to the Future’s model of time travel almost make sense.  I.e. if you travel in time, an instability is created because your atoms are there already, and after a convenient interval only the ones that ‘belong there’ will remain.)  (Well, it does violate the actual physics, which tells us that atoms really are interchangeable.  Still, valiant effort.)

Edit: it occurred to me that another unusual thing about Scalzi’s plot is that he really has no villains. (There are some people who act badly, but they’re very minor.) This is hard to do, so kudos to him for trying it.