I just finished John Sclazi’s Redshirts, a 2012 sci-fi novel that parodies sci-fi television shows. Or more specifically, it parodies Star Trek, but more on that later. It is a short read, but a fun one.
The plot concerns a group of ensigns in a space fleet that belongs to the Universal Union. The ensigns are assigned to the Intrepid, the flagship of the fleet. Things seem pretty Star Trekish at first. In fact, things seem suspiciously Star Trekish. The characters are on a starship that explores the galaxy. They gets into dangerous situations. The captain and other crewmen on the bridge seem like a tight-knit unit. Oh, and the lower ranking officers get brutally murdered on away missions on a routine basis.
That last factoid is what drives the plot. At least one person dies on every away mission with no exceptions. Not only that, but the deaths appear overly absurd. Death by shuttle accident, death by alien virus, death by sand worm, the list goes on. Yet despite being on away teams themselves, the senior officers always come out alive.
No one is quite certain why this is or how it works and the senior officers are completely oblivious to this pattern. Other oddities on the ship include a box used for medical purposes that always finds the cure to any given disease just in the nick of time. It is almost as if there is some omnipotent narrative that is at work making the crews’ lives more dramatic. …Which turns out to be exactly what is happening.
The ensigns try like hell to find out why and how this is and they launch an insane plot to keep themselves alive and prevent further catastrophes. This involves learning conventional genre tropes and twisting them to their own ends. They use other characters’ plot armor to protect themselves. They use dramatic timing to predict events. The list goes on.
What I find odd is that the book is riffing on Star Trek specifically and no other sci-fi show. The Intrepid’s bridge officers are caricatures lifted from the original Star Trek show. The book does not really deconstruct the show so much as the process that goes into writing the show. This becomes more evident in the latter parts of the book.
There are three chapters at the end called codas that are told in an alternate style of prose. They serve to sort of hammer home the themes of the main narrative and I find them a little redundant. The first one is largely concerned with how to be a smart writer on a sci-fi show. The other two wrap-up plot threads that I find unnecessary.
One place where I think the plot fails is that it feels like the book is riffing on the original Star Trek series as opposed to riffing on science fiction writing in general. Later Star Trek series were much smarter about how they treated extras and guest stars. Granted, at this point I’ve only seen Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and select episodes of the original series. Maybe Voyager and Enterprise were more callous, I’m not sure.
The prose is simple and straightforward. There are few descriptions of characters’ looks and how the aesthetics of the Intrepid. One of the senior officers is named Q’eeng, which sounds alien but there is no mention on whether the guy is an extra-terrestrial or not. I wish there had been more details about the environments and the ship. Like, if the narrative had compared the design of a ship or a planet to the conventions of a set at the studio.
The dialogue is casual and natural sounding and the characters are not averse to R-rated dialogue. Crude slang and f-bombs are thrown around at whim. This is usually to punctuate a funny situation. The book is a comedy after all. The characters are all believable given the situation that they’re in.
If there is one complaint, it is that the book’s theme is a little too narrow in focus. The characters realize that they are expendables on a science fiction show. And not just any science fiction show, but one that is a blatant imitation of Star Trek. Specifically, the original Star Trek series. This is even mentioned in the book itself.
In the afterward, Sclazi mentions that he was a writer for Stargate: Universe and that he tried to avoid the typical sci-fi pratfalls on that show. I’ve seen most of Stargate: Universe and it’s a fine show. One thing that I think Sclazi is missing is that science fiction on television has moved far beyond what Star Trek was in the sixties. The clichés that he riffs on are well known of sci-fi fandom and it is common sense to avoid them today, or at least to make them less gratuitous.
Overall, the book is an entertaining read if you like Star Trek or are a sci-fi fan in general.