To broadly go where quite a few have gone before …
Crossing the snowy light-years to Watchung Booksellers, the Beamers (who should teleport, shouldn’t we?) gathered a full bridge complement to discuss John Scalzi’s satiric look at the fate of underlings in space operas, Redshirts. With a number of subspace communiques from distant crew members, we tried to decide if Mr. Scalzi’s ironic commentary on the failures of writers to allow their characters to come to life was more ironic than he may have intended.
Captain’s Log, Stardate 2013.03.08
The junior crew of the starship Intrepid live in constant fear of being “redshirts”, the disposable extras whose deaths are used to spice up the dramatic tension in otherwise rote action scenes. The novel follows the latest junior officers to join the Intrepid as they attempt to find out just why so many deaths occur and why needlessly dramatic speeches get made and why they all feel compelled at times to take reckless actions.
What they discover is the point of Scalzi’s tale, the correspondence of their actions and those of characters on a middling sf drama made back in the days when people still watched TV (pre-2105), which forces them to time-travel back to 2012 to stop the show (or at least mitigate the meaningless slaughter of “extras”). Scalzi, a former TV writer, uses his experience to good effect, adding in a “behind the scenes” look at the makings of a weekly TV space opera and bringing some real character interaction into the story, giving the book a dual setting and tone. Which also gave us a dual perspective.
You Say “Space Opera”, I Say “Space Satire”
Some of us enjoyed the space opera segment, some the more realistic “modern day” Hollywood sequence. The former offered more of the broad humor and satire (such as the Prologue’s slapstick battle with Borgovian Land Worms in an obvious Dune parody), while the latter gave more insight into both the future characters and their present-day counterparts as well as a more knowing poke at how genre works (like noting that, thanks to those Land Worms, “the Herbert estate flayed us”). And we had a hard time deciding if what made us like one would have worked for the other segment.
Liz enjoyed the space opera adventures onboard the Intrepid but would have liked the characters to have been fleshed out, like the Hollywood characters. But, would the issue of how the “redshirts” were being controlled by the TV scripts (aka “the Narrative”) been deducible if they had not had been trapped in such stereotypical situations and responses? Kevin, agreeing with long-distant Jon, found that the finales (aka the Codas) neatly tied up the very real character issues that arose in the Hollywood segment. But I, agreeing with long-distant Edward, thought that the tying up was too neat, too tidy, too much of a stereotypical resolution. But Nick, having slogged through the first 120 pages of the space opera, found that the literary quality of the Codas was where Scalzi was demonstrating his real strengths as a romance writer and should be encouraged to do more. At the same time, absent crew Linda and Carol both deemed the work a “fun romp”. Same author, same text, many different reactions.
It’s a Joke, Son, It’s a Joke, I Say
The humor in the book also split us into various camps. Some found it on target enough to evoke real laughter, while others thought it more conceptual than amusing (where one knows that jokes are being made and told but not really finding them funny). Some of the humor arises from the absurdity of the space opera scenes being taken over by the TV scripts, and some comes from Scalzi’s ability to provide some witty banter for his characters. Kevin enjoyed Ensign Dahl’s quip about making senior staff (“I should live so long”), and I liked the classic comic escalation regarding people with missing pants (“They took away my pants.” “Why?” “Because we needed to talk to him.” “What is *wrong* with you people?”).
But, humor is very particular, and some Beamers did not laugh or even chuckle. The book’s head scriptwriter character (who seems like an author stand-in, given Scalzi’s history on Stargate: Universe), when discussing an attempt at making a bad joke, said that his father took jokes seriously: “All the jokes in the world and that’s the one you go for. You are no son of mine.” Maybe Scalzi should have listened more to his (fictional) dad.
Warp Factor Nine, Mr. Scalzi!
One general reaction was enjoyment of the brevity and fast pace of the book, as no part went on and on. While Robin did not think that the book sufficiently developed its conceit, remaining more of a “one trick pony”, she also finished it due to its ease of reading, a quality that led Eileen to dub it “a perfect airport book”. Alan found that the novel did rise above his expectation of being just a Star Trek parody, thanks to the Codas and their greater depth of characterization, also found his enjoyment of the book enhanced by its shortness.
And if it does not have high drama or character development, it does have The Box, the magic science gizmo to end all gizmos that always takes a dramatically appropriate amount of time to produce its techno-babble solutions.
Same Stuff, Different Planet?
Given the somewhat lighthearted and generally lightness of the book, we tended to favor it with decent ratings, generally tossing ‘7’ at it, with a dip down to ‘5’ and a gust up to ‘9’ from the book’s original recommender, Jon. The consensus was a pleasant if slight reading experience, marred mainly by the thought that much of this meta-fictional approach has been done before and to greater effect (check out the infamous “Plummeting whale” sequence from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for a very definitive statement on making an audience care for the demise of a “throwaway” character, for example).
But, that prior history did not completely doom our experience with this work. If Redshirts did not rise to great heights, neither did it sink to great depths. Or, as Chris and I liked to think, hey, it’s no Galaxy Quest, but it’s no Space: 1999 either.