Redshirts by John Scalzi

While a fun read, Redshirts’ narrow take on a thematic convention of Star Trek which is no longer prevalent did somewhat detract from my enjoyment of the book.

Andy Dahl is an Ensign aboard the starship Intrepid, and is beginning to wonder just why he and his friends are always being singled out for the strange jobs, or why their posts are suddenly empty of people whenever a senior crew member walks through the door. Through some investigation the junior members of the crew learn a few things which alter their perception of reality as a whole – not to mention, explaining a few things as to why Redshirts always get the gruesome deaths.


Redshirts is one of those books which will take up entire pages of TV Tropes alone (and does, here, but obviously, spoilers.) because of the amount of pastiche, parody and meta-ness which it uses. To understand every element of Redshirts you must have a passing familiarity with Star Trek and similar – even the red shirts thing is something which you must be familiar with in order to fully appreciate the story.

Unfortunately my main problem with this book is just that. A well-formed layer of ‘meta’ is built upon one which anyone can understand, whether or not they’re familiar with the tropes and other quirks of the genre which is being built upon. A good piece which parodies sci-fi like Futurama or Red Dwarf does it because of all the narrative conventions which have gone before in science fiction on a much larger scale – which, yes, Star Trek has played such a big part of, but it’s still an all-encompassing piss-take of science fiction. However, attempting to build an entirely new story out of one single element of one single TV show – that people wearing red shirts in 60s Star Trek will die horrible deaths because they’re extras – doesn’t feel like enough of a solid foundation on which to try and balance so many more concepts and post-modernity. It’s a little too shaky for me because, much as I understand the trope, it simply doesn’t feel like enough of a thing to be able to draw so much material from (Much like a gripe I’d previously held with Red Dwarf‘s Back to Earth stories – even though their meta-ness can be traced back along its own roots rather than borrowing from others’).

Genre-bashing aside, I did enjoy the story. The characters were, although somewhat contrived (again, while we’re acknowledging its meta-ness we’re also admitting its stock-ness), fun to read about and go on the journey with. It’s a very well-written novel with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments.

But for me, Redshirts should’ve gone a lot further with the themes which it explored – limiting it to a Star Trek pastiche rather than a skewed take on sci-fi as a whole is what makes the whole thing sort of corny. And not in a good way.

3 thoughts on “Redshirts by John Scalzi

  1. Great post. I was disappointed by this book; I expected a Galaxy Quest-like satire, but it didn’t deliver: there were funny moments, but for me the whole thing sank under the weight of its own meta-smugness.
    Sci-fi’s a great genre for exploring the philosophical; free will vs destiny, existentialism all that jazz, and Redshirts stepped up and took a swing, but opportunities for something richer and deeper went begging because the jokes and the pacing demanded something a little glibber.

    Scalzi seems like a lovely bloke, with a genuine affection for cheesy sci-fi, and there were moments I enjoyed – the pathos of reclusive redshirt Crewman Jenkins for example, but no one else felt like a truly well developed character (perhaps deliberately). Ultimately that stopped me caring about them.

  2. Pingback: Redshirts, Red Dwarf and Reflexivity | Alpha Signal Five

  3. Pingback: Redshirt game review | Alpha Signal Five

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