Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi (Spoiler-Free)

The Universal Union’s flagship, the Intrepid, is exactly the first assignment that Andy Dahl was hoping for, and he’s off to a great start, forming the basis of a solid friendship group among his fellow new crewmen before he’s even on board. But the longer he’s there, the more he starts to realise that there’s something rather strange about the Intrepid – and its secrets are deadly.

For those who don’t know, Redshirts is a parody of Star Trek, and uses as its central theme one of the show’s most dark-if-you-think-about-it-but-usually-you-don’t tendencies: killing off minor characters (who usually wear red shirts, hence the name) for dramatic tension. As with most parodies, this premise probably won’t hold much appeal for those who aren’t aware of what it’s poking fun at, but as a fan, I was eager to see what is essentially Star Trek as told by the extras. And although parody isn’t my usual genre, I was pleasantly surprised by the balance Scalzi struck between humour and sobriety; the situation was absurd, but it was having a serious impact on the characters.

That said, the book definitely had its flaws. Though the characters were generally likeable, most of them were largely indistinct from one another, which wasn’t helped in the audiobook version by the fact that Wil Wheaton (the voice actor) didn’t do much to differentiate the voices. Most of the secondary characters were also completely forgettable whenever they weren’t being directly mentioned, and I found myself having to frequently pause to remind myself who everyone was… and considering the small size of both the book and the cast, that’s an impressive feat.

The other major mark against this book is its dialogue, which, with every single line attributed, was abysmally repetitive. (Conversations between Dahl and Duvall – who get the most screen-time out of everyone – were particularly bad, as their rhyming names made the line-attribution almost comical.) This was perhaps necessary, as the aforementioned character-indistinctness meant that it would often have been difficult to tell who was speaking from context alone, but it certainly wasn’t necessary to this extent… And in any case, the issue could have been much more satisfactorily fixed by giving the characters a bit more individuality.

I was also a little disappointed by the solution that the characters came up with to their main dilemma, as I was (eagerly) anticipating something quite different – which I still think would have made for a more entertaining second half, though admittedly it would have been much more full of plot holes. Nevertheless, my expectations were completely baseless, so my feelings on this can’t really blamed on the book. And as it was, I did get drawn back in once I’d overcome my initial impulse to sulk, and I found the three codas (which dealt with the consequences of the main characters’ actions in the second half) very interesting.

Overall: A quick, amusing read (/listen), if you can get used the the continuous stream of he-said-she-said.

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