You don’t have to be a fan of “Star Trek” to enjoy John Scalzi’s book Redshirts. Honestly, you really don’t have to be a fan of “Star Trek” to thoroughly enjoy John Scalzi’s book Redshirts. But if you are a fan of “Star Trek”, then you are going to absolutely love this book.
For those who may not realize the significance of the title, in the original “Star Trek” television series (which ran from 1966 to 1969), the color of a crew member’s uniform said something about their role on the starship Enterprise: gold was for command officers, blue was for those in the sciences (including medical), and red was for operations (engineering and tactical, including security). On away teams – teams of crew members picked to leave the ship on missions – there were invariably a few “redshirts” along: nameless crew members that acted as security detail. Invariably, these nameless redshirts would be the ones who got killed off before the first commercial break. The mortality rate of these poor, nameless redshirts was incredibly high, high enough for the term to become synonymous with that which is expendable.
John Scalzi’s book is not a spoof of this now famous sci-fi trope, not at all (even though, when reading a John Scalzi book, one will probably be in for a fair amount of spoofing, just in principle…). But it does take the trope, and puts it in a completely different perspective.
Ensign Andy Dahl has just been assigned to the Intrepid, the famous Capital Ship of the Universal Union. Led by Captain Lucius Abernathy, the Intrepid‘s main missions are exploration and discovery, something that Ensign Dahl is looking forward to after years as a “lab rat” studying xenobiology and linguistics at the Academy. We meet up with Andy at the Earth Dock while he is waiting for the shuttle that will transport the new crew to the ship; he is joining one of his former classmates who has also been assigned to the Intrepid, along with some other first timers who are more than willing to bond with their new crewmates.
Once on the ship, Andy is surprised to be met by none other than Q’eeng, the flagship’s Chief Science Officer, who just happened to be coming off duty when Ensign Dahl arrived. While escorting the new ensign to the biology department and keeping up a running stream of polite conversation, Andy is surprised to find that Q’eeng moves through the bustling corridors uninterrupted; the purposefully moving crowds would part – almost as if by magic – flow around them, and then close behind them as they walked past. Andy is told this is part of the efficiency and the effectiveness of the crew; he is soon to learn that there is more to it than that. Much more. His first hint comes upon meeting his fellow xenobiology lab coworkers.
Collins nodded and looked back at the tablet. ‘I’m surprised Flaviu recommended you for the Intrepid.’
‘He refused at first,’ Dahl said, remembering the discussion with his Academy department head. ‘He wanted me to take a post at a research facility on Europa.’
‘Why didn’t you take it?’ Collins asked.
‘I wanted to see the universe, not be down a sixty-kilometer ice tunnel, looking at Europan microbes.’
‘You have something against Europan microbes?’ Collins asked.
‘I’m sure they’re very nice as microbes go,’ Dahl said. ‘They deserve someone who really wants to study them.’
‘You must have been pretty insistent to get Flaviu to change his mind,’ Collins said.
‘My scores were high enough to get Commander Q’eeng’s attention,’ Dahl said. ‘And as luck would have it, a position opened up here.’
‘It wasn’t luck,’ Mbeke said.
‘It was a Longranian Ice Shark,’ Cassaway said.
‘Which is the opposite of luck,’ Mbeke said.
‘A what?’ Dahl asked.
‘The crew member you’re replacing was Sid Black,’ Trin said. ‘He was part of an away team to Longran Seven, which is an ice planet. While exploring and abandoned ice city, the away team was attacked by ice sharks. They carried Sid off. He wasn’t seen again.’
‘His leg was,’ Mbeke said. ‘The lower half, anyway.’
‘Quiet, Fiona,’ Collins said, irritated. She set down the tablet and looked back at Dahl. ‘You met Commander Q’eeng,’ she said.
‘I did,’ Dahl said.
‘Did he talk to you about away missions?’ Collins asked.
‘Yes,’ Dahl said. ‘He asked me if I was interested in them.’
‘What did you say?’ Collins asked.
‘I said I usually did lab work but I assumed I would participate on away missions as well,’ Dahl said. ‘Why?’
‘He’s on Q’eeng’s radar now,’ Trin said to Collins.
Dahl looked at Trin and back at Collins. ‘Is there something I’m missing here, ma’am?’ he asked.
‘No,’ Collins said, and glanced over at Trin. ‘I just prefer to have the option to indoctrinate my crew before Q’eeng gets his hands on them. That’s all.’
‘Is there some philosophical disagreement there?’ Dahl asked.
‘It’s not important,’ Collins said. ‘Don’t worry yourself about it.’
It doesn’t take Andy long to determine that away missions for a member of the Intrepid crew – especially a low ranking, new crew member – is especially dangerous. But that’s not the only thing that is strange. The commanding officers seem impervious to danger, and when they are hurt, they recover miraculously fast (especially young, good looking Lieutenant Kerensky, who seems to have more than his fair share of scrapes with death). And then there is the Box, that looks like a microwave but seems to hold the answer to all biological conundrums that appear to be unsolvable. The crew, outside of the upper echelon of command, have become adept at making themselves accountably scarce when away parties are being assembled. But there’s only so much a low level crew member can do to stay out of harm’s way, and eventually Ensign Dahl decides it’s time to do some exploration and discovery of his own. What he finds is far more than he bargained for – and so much more than what we anticipate.
John Scalzi is adept at taking strange, absurd and even seemingly silly story lines and making them so much more than we anticipate. He’s a master of putting the reader in situations that at first glance may feel either mundane or fantastical then allowing them to evolve into gripping tales that are not only plausible, but downright exciting – honest to goodness page turners. His characters feel real, like regular folks you might run into at the corner bar (if you happen to frequent corner bars in space), but imbued with the smarts and tenacity that you would like to believe you hold within yourself. His dialog flows fast and effortlessly, with a high degree of wit and humor, even in the most threatening of situations. He’s a pure pleasure to read.
What develops in Redshirts includes a weird potential of time travel, interaction with a type of parallel universe, a cast of familiar yet realistically deep characters, a fair amount of poignancy, action, adventure, and situations that in lesser hands may seem ridiculous, but with Scalzi move quickly into a heart pounding experience that will captivate both science fiction fans and those who simply love a great story. With three short “codas” at the end that help flesh out what happens after the main story concludes (think of them as epilogues), Redshirts is a book that will keep you guessing, and cheering for the no longer nameless redshirted “every men” as they battle to live another day. A wonderful and thoroughly entertaining read!