Redshirts

I’m doing another book review again this week, but I think you’ll find it worth your time. The book is Redshirts by John Scalzi, author of Old Man’s War, and it’s a science fiction—for folks who don’t normally read sf.

If you’re at all familiar with TV sf, you’re familiar with Star Trek. Heck, I’m sure you’re familiar with Trek even if you don’t watch sf as a rule. It’s become such a part of our culture that it’s hard not to know about it.

And, if you’re like most folks, you know that, especially in the original series, the redshirts were killed on a regular basis. They were the extras who barely had names and were always members of the away team. And they usually died before the first commercial break. This…tradition, I guess is the best word for it, is one of the things Trek is known for.

Well, Redshirts isn’t a Trek novel, though Trek does get mentioned partway in. The concept, though, comes quite obviously from the show, but Mr. Scalzi treats it with some intelligence.

Now, full disclosure here, I’m a fan of Star Trek. Have been for years. Unlike a lot of Trekkies, though, I don’t worship the show. I don’t go to conventions or dress up as a Klingon or Ferengi (or however you spell that). It’s got its faults, but hey, it’s TV sf. Whaddaya want?

Anyway, back to the review.

The protagonist of Redshirts is Andrew Dahl. He’s just been posted to the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union, commonly known as Dub U. He’s excited to be assigned to the xenobiology department, which means he’ll get a better than even chance to serve on away missions. What more could you ask for?

Dahl is greeted by Science Officer Q’eeng (pronounced king) and given a quick orientation tour. On the way to the xenobiology department, he notices that crew members part before Q’eeng like water in front of a ship, and that they all look extremely busy. But once Q’eeng is past them, they all slow down to normal pace.

Okay, he can handle that. He also remarks to Q’eeng that he requested being stationed to the Intrepid because the ship seems to be on the cutting edge of science. In fact, it’s so cutting edge that they had trouble replicating it back at the academy.

Soon, other anomalies start popping up. For instance, it seems that everyone onboard is obsessed with avoiding away missions, to the point that they disappear when any of the top officers show up.

When one of those officers named Lt. Kerensky returns from an away mission infected with a flesh-eating disease, the xenobiology department is tasked with finding what Captain Lucius Abernathy calls a counter-bacterial. Of course, Dahl is the only one around when Abernathy and Q’eeng show up, so he gets the job. The moment the two officers leave, the rest of the department shows up and explains a few things to him, such as that Kerensky is always getting hurt somehow, but he never actually dies. And he gets better really fast, too, it seems. Anyway, they have six hours to find this, um, counter-bacterial, or Kerensky will die. So Dahl is introduced to the Box. It looks just like a microwave, and they use it anytime a miracle is needed. One of Dahl’s crewmates explains that it’s “…an experimental quantum-based computer with advanced inductive artificial intelligence capacity, whose design comes to us from an advanced but extinct race of warrior-engineers.”

The Box.

So. Put the sample of the disease in the Box, push the green button, and wait. In this case, five and a half hours, just to be dramatic. Sure enough, at five and a half hours, the Box goes ding. Though he doesn’t understand it all, Dahl is told to take his work tablet with the data to the bridge—he can’t mail it in this case—and to give it to Q’eeng. When he does, he’s to point at the data scrolling by and say that it’s almost there, but they have a problem with the protein coat. Or that maybe there’s some enzyme transcription errors. Or the RNA replication is buggy. Doesn’t matter, just act like there’s one small thing wrong. Q’eeng will fix it—dramatically—and transfer the data to the ship’s computer. Kerensky is saved just in the nick of time.

Commercial break.

You see where I’m going with this? Or, more precisely, where Mr. Scalzi is going with this?

The redshirts know something hinky is going on, even if they’re not entirely sure what.

As the story progresses, Dahl finds out about Jenkins, a crew member from xenobiology who lives in the cargo tunnels. Jenkins is a computer geek who’s designed a way for department heads to keep track of the senior officers with their phones. That’s how they all suddenly disappear when one of the cadre approaches.

Turns out Jenkins has done some research. The mortality rates for redshirts is higher than any ship in history—except one: the Enterprise. When Dahl and his friends say they’re not familiar with this ship—or even it’s weird design—Jenkins tells them that it’s from a TV series from the twentieth century.

And get this: it turns out that the Intrepid is the subject of a TV show called Chronicles of the Intrepid in an alternate timeline. And the sad part is, it’s not even a good show. It’s a ripoff of Star Trek, too. When there’s nothing going on, things on the Intrepid go normally. But when there’s an episode of Chronicles being filmed, the Narrative takes over. People know things they shouldn’t normally know. The laws of physics don’t work like they should (i.e. it’s possible to go into a black hole as long as a senior officer is along). Things like that.

I’ll stop right there, since I don’t want to spoil it any more than that.

This is the first book I’ve read by Mr. Scalzi, though I have intended to read Old Man’s War for quite some time now. He’s past president (and I think present, too) of SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and, if this book’s any example, a damn good writer. You’ll find a link to his blog, called Whatever, in the links over there on the right. It’s a good place to find out about quality upcoming sf/f, if that’s your bag.

I will add this note: Redshirts probably doesn’t end the way you think it might. I know it sure didn’t end the way I thought it would. But it’s a more than satisfactory ending, nonetheless.

So, go out and obtain a copy of Redshirts by John Scalzi, whether you’re a Trekkie or not, or even an sf fan or not. I think you’ll get a kick out of it.

Later,

Gil

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