Redshirts, is a sci-fi meta-fiction novel written by John Scalzi about a group of friends aboard a spaceship in the future that is dealing with strange occurrences on away missions which put their lives at risk.
Redshirts is set in a fictional future with space travel. The setting is similar to the Star Trek universe. The people aboard spaceship go on away missions to explore alien lives and deal with threats or dangers. Most of the action happens on the spaceship and the away missions. The economy appears to be similar to the present day economy of the Earth. There are left wing and right wing leaders but it isn’t clear as to how they impact the economy. In other words, the novel dwells little on the economy of the world except for mentioning that one of the lead characters is heir to one of the richest persons in the universe.
Characters and Plot #
The characters are the crew members of the spaceship Intrepid. The group consists of the new recruits, called ensigns, including Andrew Dahl, the protagonist. The ensigns on board Intrepid discover a strange phenomenon about high correlation between the commanding officer on an away mission and the death of the crew members accompanying them. They cannot fathom any causal relationship about the correlation, and blame on several factors like incompetence, high risk and coincidence. A recluse on the ship, Jenkins, has discovered that their lives are governed by a strange phenomenon which he calls the “narrative”. According to him, the crew members are living out their lives as part of the fiction concocted by a 21st century TV series’ writers. In other words, they are characters from the fictional universe of the show, and their lives are dictated by the whimsical, and morbid, drama of the show. The physics of their universe is also dictated by the TV writers and “anything goes” to serve the drama and the silly plot.
Andrew Dahl who is the protagonist is sceptical of Jenkins’ theory. He buys it after he sees the strong evidence. He persuaded his friends to help him in the remedial mission as well. Andrew Dahl, interestingly, is a student of an esoteric religion which is similar to Zen Buddhism. He is a truth seeker, and like every protagonist is blessed with good luck and charisma. Rest of the team members have distinct personalities and doubt the theory but support Dahl after discovering strengths in the argument. You sympathize with the characters who are as hapless and helpless as Daffy duck from the existential surreal cartoon Duck Amuck where Daffy duck is flummoxed by the animator, who turns out to be the beloved Bugs Bunny, changing the setting whimsically.
John Scalzi, the writer, cleverly deconstructs the tropes of bad sci-fi, and weaves it into this meta-fiction. The writing is fast paced, witty, comic and overall brilliant. I am in awe of his writing. This is his first novel that I read and I was impressed with the way he tells this meta fiction. The plot points are inspired by the bad writings of the Sci-fi TV shows. He purposely uses the absurd trope of sci-fi, like a black box which conveniently solves the problem within the spate of the time allotted to solve it. There are abundant references to sci-fi plots like a ship under attack by the aliens, over the top campy dialogues and the mumbo jumbo of sci-fi writers, and preposterous deus-ex-machina which saves the day but depletes the viewer’s intellect. Having said that, the novel itself is a meta fiction in that it makes use of the same plot devices which it ridicules.
Apart from the references to the silly sci-fi, the novel has an undercurrent of an oft-discussed philosophical debate - free will, its unit operation. Are our lives governed by our own volition? Is there a grand narrative and we play out our part? Elon Musk thinks as much. John, off course, does not provide an answer and as a parthian shot almost gives this comic novel a morbid ending, but quickly retracts as if almost quoting Bugs Bunny from Duck Amuck - “Ain’t I a stinker”.