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Monday, June 11, 2012

Book Review: Redshirts

Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting,and Andrew is thrilled all the more to be assigned to the ship’s Xenobiology laboratory. 

Life couldn’t be better . . . until Andrew begins to pick up on the fact that (1) every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces, (2) the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations, and (3) at least one low-ranked crew member is, sadly, always killed. 

Not surprisingly, a great deal of energy below decks is expended on avoiding, at all costs, being assigned to an Away Mission. Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is . . . and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives

Right off the bat this book did not disappoint me. Not even a little bit. No I would say this book made me incredibly happy.

I grew up in a house enamored with Star Trek in its various forms, so the term 'red shirt' has a very real meaning to me. Mind you in the later series of Star Trek, once Red became the Command color, this held less true, but it still stuck. So the idea of playing around with it--having a new crew member start to notice the peculiarity when it came to crew deaths around the high ranking officers...well any fan of Star Trek can say 'Oh I remember that!'

Is this a perfect book? No, despite being a parody of Star Trek (and similar genre shows), to get the full force of the humor, irony and duh moments the reader should be at least peripherally aware of the show, or of shows like it (really any scifi/genre show--Stargate, Farscape, Buffy). The ridiculous dramatics the person in charge goes through when a simple 'Get us out of here!' would suffice. The seemingly endless lives the 'main cast' seem to have (not just their 'lives' but also how they get out of being court-marshaled or brought up on charges). The utterly ridiculous science.

Yeah its a good idea to have a basic grasp of why having Andy Dahl notice these otherwise ordinary occurrences in his universe and remark on them being 'weird' as being significant.

The first two-thirds of the book are basically the set-up. Andy notices something, says 'Isn't this weird?' and pretty much everyone gives him a blank look. His friends, the crewmates that came aboard with him (who all fit certain stereotypes themselves--the flirt, the outcast, the genius, the 'average' guy) also begin to notice the weird occurances around them and together they begin to investigate (to various degrees of incredulity).

The last third is what happens when you learn too much. How do you deal with that information? What is the 'right' course of action? Who claims responsibility when sometimes stuff really is that awful and there's no one to blame?

I haven't read Scalzi before, at least not his fiction. His blog (Whatever) is awesome, his book YOUR HATE MAIL WILL BE GRADED is hilarious, and he's worked as a consultant on at least one show I love to pieces (Stargate: Universe), but this was my first taste of his books so I was apprehensive. But I shouldn't have been. Everything I love his blog is in full force here--the humor, the weird little observances of human nature, the easy readability.

Scalzi doesn't just write a comedy, or genre book, he writes a book that looks at how people justify their actions and rationalize the weird. 'Its not my fault, I warned you' is a recurring (in various forms) theme. Or 'You know, so hand the burden to someone else' also seems to pop up countless times. The crew onboard the INTREPID ignore the high turnover rate of new members because if they noticed then they'd have to think about their culpability. The motto is basically 'Watch out for yourself first, then a select few and maybe others if you have time'.

I want to go into the last third of the book. I want to discuss the exploration Scalzi goes through in order to make the first two thirds make sense. I can't though because that would be the biggest spoiler you could imagine. Its Snape Killed Dumbledore or Vader is Luke's father level. It will change how you read the rest of the book and alter the experience.

So instead I'll leave you with this: do you know why you do the things you do?