I get antsy right after I finish a book; I always want to discuss it. I work much better when I have something/someone to bounce ideas off of. This usually takes the form of reading amazon or goodreads reviews, and then scoffing at people I disagree with. But I just finished reading John Scalzi’s most recent novel, Redshirts, and I want to talk (at you) about it before I read anything.
I’d seen the book around, and was annoyed with the idea, in truth. The Redshirt trope is tired and old. I don’t think jokes about it are funny anymore, and so the idea of a novel based around that premise was not appealing. But, I’d been reading some of Scalzi’s blog posts recently, and I really liked the way his brain worked. I was curious as to what he’d bring to the novel format. So off I went, to read the book.
I was really very pleasantly surprised. Minor spoilers ahead.
The book is the story of the crew of The Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union, which has a much, much higher mortality rate than any other ship in the fleet. A group of new ensigns comes aboard and insists on digging into the mystery. A hermitic crewman named Jenkins, widowed when his wife died on an away mission, proposes the theory that there is something called The Narrative intruding on their reality, that they are part of a television show. Not only that, but it’s a very, very poorly written show. And from there the ensigns set off to find a way to stop the narrative and take control of their lives.
As the cover points out, it’s a novel and three codas. This structure is key, I think, to why I enjoyed it so much. The novel itself is quick. I finished it in about two days (with minimal reading time each day), and enjoyed every minute of it. It doesn’t play around, and every time I started to feel like the level of complication wasn’t high enough, he ratcheted it up another notch. I don’t doubt some people have had problems with the dialogue maybe being a little too snappy and/or witty, but it felt fine within the tone of the book. There are definitely a number of scenes where I almost couldn’t tell who was saying what because everybody’s sarcasm was stepping on everybody else’s sarcasm. I didn’t have a problem with it, really. You can make the argument that because they are supposed to be television characters, they’ve only been imbued with the depth the writers/actors have given them, thus their similarity. The truth is that it doesn’t matter; it’s not really a story that requires a lot of depth. He could have written a much longer novel with a lot more character work, but I don’t really see what the point would have been, especially since it would have messed up his masterfully quick pacing.
This brings us to the codas. When I reached the end of the novel, I was a little miffed that I now had to slough through some extra crap. The novel ended right about where I wanted it to; I almost put the book down, which makes me almost a shitheel, because the codas were excellent. It’s like a little extra short story at the end, and the slower pace, which is a little bit jarring after the speed of the novel, forces us to spend some time examining some of the philosophical ramifications of what we’ve just read. It is the antithesis of the shitty sci-fi plotting Scalzi’s characters have spent most of the book railing against (and being maimed/killed by). It lays another layer on top of the initial plot. It’s deep, but not self-indulgently so, which would have been a kind of suicide at the end of a book of this sort. It fills in a couple of little holes very nicely.
I tend to get antsy with books that are light and quick because often they’re boring; they’re either just going through the motions, or the author just isn’t talented enough to juggle all the balls at once. Scalzi brings wit and intelligence to a plot that could have easily gotten bogged down in minutiae or assumed readers were amused enough with the concept that they’d follow through to the end no matter what.