Blergh! Or In Other Words, I Am Dead

June 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Death! Death! Doom and death!

But for safety’s sake I am wearing a black shirt, so I should be fine with today’s post.

Week 23: Redshirts, by John Scalzi


Redshirts has been lighting up the internet like wildfire for the past few weeks. If you follow science fiction books, then you certainly should have seen at least a few mentions of this book throughout the blogosphere. As an added bonus (because someone at Tor loves you), you can read the first five chapters here.

This book is interesting because it gives me a plethora of things to talk about. It’s certainly not a simple story, as a comedy piece that analyses science fiction tropes through a meta-analysis of the genre itself. The story follows the new crew members of the Universal Union flagship Intrepid and their investigation into the stunningly high mortality rate among crew members assigned to away missions: the proverbial “redshirts”. Yes, fans of Star Trek, Scalzi is parodying who you think they are mentioning: those poor saps who die in order to give dramatic weight to an episode without requiring them to kill off a significant character every week. So, as I prepare this week’s essay/review, I have so much choice! Do I talk about writing humor into a genre book? Do I talk about meta-awareness, tropes, and how Scalzi handles them? Do I talk about how, much like last week, this book also does not have an antagonist, and how that drives some of the story elements? Or should I just review it and call it a day?

Maybe I’ll just think about it for a while longer. He’s certainly not going anywhere

I think…all of them! First up: tropes and meta-awareness!

Scalzi’s book is, from the title on, about tropes. In this case, about how the red shirt is destined to die, and what that would actually mean in a world where that’s true. That trope, although not always the case (and in this particular instance a very specific one), does reflect how powerful tropes are in genre fiction. Let it be said that I am not a fan of dividing fiction into genres, but so long as we do it, it does provide a useful paradigm to examine tropes with.

See, I like to write fantasy, and fantasy has a tonne of tropes associated with it. That said, inverting those tropes is what’s made Brandon Sanderson and George R. R. Martin so successful. Mistborn was written as a book where the bad guy won, and Martin’s books are written where the shining knights are not the good guy. But the tropes are still there. There are still white knights on horseback (Elend and Aerys Oakheart), and there are still dragons and villains. Even though they invert the tropes, they still use them, and they rely on it in their own way.

Can we write a story without tropes? No, and it would be stupid to try. But turning them around on their heads is often enough to make the story interesting. Scalzi, in Redshirts, turned them around and made the story about turning them around. It makes for an interesting story, especially because he keeps it going for 300 pages. The idea, when I first heard it, sounded like it would be better suited for a short story, but it was interesting to see what story he made in order to explore this in novel form. That alone is one of the coolest things about this book.

It’s funny because this is technically also a red shirt

But the vessel that really allows us to look at this inversion of tropes is the humor that Scalzi sprinkles in this book. It’s a comedy, and it makes no bones about it. Hell, read the first pages in the link I posted above and you’ll see the jokes happen on the first page.

I will be charitable about Scalzi’s humor, and say that what works for some doesn’t work for everyone. Here’s an excerpt from one of the links I posted:

“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.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this isn’t funny. But I am certainly not going to say this is, uh, as Patrick Rothfuss said,

I can honestly say I can’t think of another book that ever made me laugh this much. Ever.

Hmm. But fair enough. I mean, it is Patrick Rothfuss, and I do not see eye to eye with him.

That said, humor is the only way I can imagine this book working, and I’m glad Scalzi did it. In this interview, he talks about how humor hasn’t fared so well in the sci fi genre since Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and how that’s a bad thing. I completely agree because, if you’ve read anything of what I’ve been writing, I like having humour in my stories. Pure comedy isn’t really my bag (I do have an idea for a comedy book), but I do need some comedy. The humor in Redshirts however, allowed Scalzi the freedom to play. In a way, I’m jealous. I”m so damn serious about all my stories that I sometimes forget to play around with some of my creations.

Spock never forgets to play

Finally, this book also doesn’t have an antagonist. Well, it sort of does.

If you don’t want spoilers, I would skip the “quoted” paragraph.

The closest thing to an enemy in the book is the “Narrative”, the story the characters find themselves in and is the thing that kills them. It, however, is not directly encountered or fought. It’s not a person or a thing that they destroy, instead, it just is and they try to change it.

Yes, this is filler. Hilarious, hilarious filler. Click to open it; it’s a gif

Long story short, they don’t really have a bad guy to fight, but this book wouldn’t workwitha bad guy. One of the criticisms I saw on a review was that the protagonists don’t really have a character arc, they they don’t really change by the end of the book. That’s as much a trope as anything else, so I’m not surprised that Scalzi did it that way. Why bother with a bad guy, or with having your characters develop, if we’re not in a story where that matters?

And this isn’t to say that the characters don’t change at all, but rather, the changing of the characters isn’t what matters to the story. That, in a way, is yet another trope that he plays with. The story gets very meta, and it’s real damn interesting because of it.

Review this book? Well, I won’t do that. It’s not a book that bears easy analysis, because it’s not meant to. Sure, it’s not the best story that I’ve ever read, and I’ve read things that are funnier (I still occasionally read the scripts to Father Ted and they are the greatest thing ever), but it’s one of the most interesting things I’ve read in a long time. Does that mean it’s good?

I won’t say yes or no to that. I will say that until I wrote this review, I didn’t think much of it. Now that I’ve written this, I see more of the depth and the complexity of this story. That’s a good thing, I guess. But I think it would have been better if I had felt that way from the beginning, and a stronger story would have helped.


No, I did not get to finish any of the other books, but I mostly finished Neil Flambe. I’ll see what I can do about finishing it this week as well. Up next: Fragile Things, Neil Gaiman’s short story collection. I’ve had it since Christmas, so it’s time to read it. I’m, uh, bad that way. We’re looking at about 10 books on the desk that haven’t been read yet. In time, because obviously time is the only thing that I get more of as I get older, right?


John would like to wish all fathers a good day, and he hopes that one day he can join them.


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