Like many of a certain age who grew up with Star Trek and its various spin-offs, John Scalzi’s Redshirts is a brilliant nod to the workers on the lower decks of a starship; though, more to the point, the red shirted security men and women. We know that any security guard who beamed down with Kirk, Spock and McCoy crew usually ended dying before the opening credit –though they could also be killed off to heighten commercial act breaks through the rest of the episode.
This is a comic riff on the phenomenon of those apparently expendable and unending supply of security guards who’s jobs, it seems, is to be shot, stabbed, eaten or crushed into stone dust so the main cast can emote and keep the narrative going (in that sort of “we have to do this in the memory of security guard #4”).
Set in the 25th century and centered on the crew of the Universal Union flagship Intrepid, Redshirts focuses on ensign Andrew Dahl, who just transferred to the ship, along with a few other newly assigned security guards. But only a few hours on the ship, Dahl thinks something odd is going on and confronts some of his fellow crew members:
“So, did you guys get asked about away teams?” Duvall asked, as she brought her mess tray to the table where Dahl and Hanson were already sitting.
“I did,” Hanson said.
“So did I,” Dahl said.
“Is it just me, or does everyone on this ship seem a little weird about them?” Duvall asked.
“Give me an example,” Dahl said.
“I mean that within five minutes of getting to my new post I heard three different stories of crew buying the farm on an away mission. Death by falling rock. Death by toxic atmosphere. Death by pulse gun vaporization.”
“Death by shuttle door malfunction,” Hanson said.
“Death by ice shark,” Dahl said.
“Death by what?” Duvall said, blinking. “What the hell is an ice shark?”
“You got me,” Dahl said. “I had no idea there was such a thing.”
“Is it a shark made of ice?” Hanson asked. “Or a shark that lives in ice?”
“It wasn’t specified at the time,” Dahl said, spearing a meat bit on his tray.
“I’m thinking you should have called bullshit on the ice shark story,” Duvall said.
Scalzi is brilliant at the whole absurdity of the redshirt trope, and yet does not make a mockery of it. The characters are wonderfully drawn and the book itself is designed to poke fun at all the illogical fallacies and cheap tricks –or what Scalzi calls lazy writing- to get their heroes to the next episode, sans a couple of security people.
It also has some surprising emotional heft to it, and most of the humor is spot on. Also, readers of Jasper Fforde may find a familiarity with it as well.
I really liked it.