Thursday Reviews: Red Shirts by John Scalzi

Red Shirts

John Scalzi

You know those guys on the original Star Trek that died every week? The ones that went gurgle and crunch as something ate them or disappeared in a flash of ray gun blast? Those guys. The red shirts. Well, John Scalzi presents us with their point of view. And really, the red shirts on the good ship Intrepid don’t like being cannon fodder while Captain Abernathy, Science Officer Q’eeng, or perpetually wounded or infected Lt. Kerensky either come out of each away mission unscathed or heal with miraculous speed.  One crew member notices this happens to the crew of the Intrepid a lot more than it does to other ships in the Universal Union (the “Dub U” as its denizens call it) navy. Even the five always healthy or healing senior officers seem perfectly normal when their records prior to coming aboard the Intrepid are examined. In fact, the only ship anyone can find with a fatality record approaching the Intrepid‘s is the fictional Starship Enterprise. This prompts one red shirt to quip that they’re in a bad knock off of Star Trek. But one too many away missions gets at Ensign Andy Dahl, Red Shirts‘ main protagonist. Dahl sets out to learn why the Intrepid, with the exception of its five senior officers, is so incredibly unlucky. What he learns could have been an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Red Shirts is a wicked send-up of all those thundering cliche’s that drive fans of various television shows up a tree. Why is it always Decks 6 through 12 that suffer incredible damage? Why do control panels explode? Hasn’t twenty-something century technology evolved a better circuit breaker?  How does the lab come up with an almost perfect solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem with a senior officer finding the missing piece at the last possible second? And why do unknown crew members get killed at an alarming rate?

If anyone is qualified to call writers out on this – and make no mistake, writers do get called out on it – it’s John Scalzi, who served as creative consultant for Stargate: Universe for a season. And he wrote about science fiction movies for several years at, as well as authoring The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies. Oh, and he wrote a few science fiction novels.

While I’d like to see something more daring, like his fantasy novella, The God Engines, or his well-done Heinleinesque Old Man’s War series, Scalzi still never disappoints. The book is laced with Scalzi’s satirical humor and even turns that humor on the author himself in one late scene. (If you don’t catch it, reread the final chapter again.) Reading this one reminded me of another parody that did a fine job of walking the tightrope between tweaking Star Trek‘s nose while paying it and its fans proper respect. That would be Galaxy Quest. What seals this up in a bow are three present-day codas that aren’t so much parody as they are a bit poignant, including one woman learning she has a future counterpart and wondering why she hasn’t measured up to her future doppleganger’s yardstick.

Paging Tim Allen. I think we found you your sequel.