Ever wonder what goes through the minds of the disposable extras in sci-fi TV shows? You know, the expendable security staff you’ve never seen on screen before, whose sole purpose is to die so that the main characters can survive? Well John Scalzi, creative consultant on Stargate: Universe, has obviously given it some thought, the result of which is the Hugo Award-winning Redshirts.
The story follows the exploits of five new recruits on the Universal Union ship Intrepid as they find their feet and try to work out why everyone else works so hard to keep clear from the senior officers, and avoid going on away missions. Could it be something to do with the fact that someone dies every time an away team is dispatched? Or maybe the way that decks six through twelve always seem to be the ones damaged in any attack on the ship…
Beginning as a straight-up pastiche of everyone’s favourite sci-fi shows, albeit a genuinely chucklesome one, it’s not long before the tone shifts and the plot thickens, reading remarkably like the story of a classic Star Trek episode (in a good way). We get aliens, robots (possibly alien robots), conspiracy theories and time travel, all wrapped up in a clever plot that maintains the humour and ramps up the speed. The sci-fi cliché references remain throughout, with an additional pinch of knowing self awareness as we progress through the story, but are spread thinly enough to avoid being overpowering.
By the time we get to the smart, satisfying climax it’s become clear that this is much, much more than just an exercise in poking fun at tired old sci-fi tropes. There’s quite a strong message in there, of positivity and taking ownership of your own life, hidden behind the narrative causality and dodgy science.
Having come to the conclusion of the story with a fair amount of the page count still to go, we then get three additional sections, in first, second and third person, showing the aftermath from some interesting perspectives. The American edition of the book is actually titled Redshirts – a Novel with Three Codas, so it’s interesting that the UK edition doesn’t make mention of these. They provide a really interesting follow on, both thematically and stylistically, and actually go on to add some unforeseen emotional depth to the book. It’s not what you would expect, but actually they work very well in concert with the main storyline.
For what could easily have been an amusing but ultimately throwaway parody, Redshirts is in fact much more of a loving homage to classic sci-fi shows with in all their idiosyncratic glory. The final quarter throws a bit of a curveball that not everyone is going to appreciate, but if you’re a fan of Star Trek et al and like your science fiction with a side order of meta, this is a cracking good read.