The cleverest part of John Scalzi’s Redshirts occurs roughly halfway through the novel. The characters and story have been working toward a revelation that pushes the narrative in a specific direction. Yet once it arrives, the story opens up. It can go anywhere. Redshirts takes advantage of that freedom, swiftly changing from an amusing-but-predictable parody into a more complex and affecting book.
Redshirts opens with a group of new ensigns on board the Universal Union’s flagship, the Intrepid. They quickly discover something is wrong: The crew hides in terror whenever the senior officers search for anyone to accompany them on away missions. The new ensigns, after a few bizarre, bloody away missions of their own, quickly discover why—the shirking crew members know they’re likely to die when the senior officers (who always survive) do dangerous things.
This is all expected, given the novel’s title and the role of the “red shirt” character in television history. The ensigns exist only to create a sense of danger when they die or get wounded; otherwise, they’re expendable. This initial section of the book is an easy-to-read, amusing Terry Pratchett-esque parody of the trope.
That changes as the ensigns meet Jenkins, a longer-serving member of the Intrepid’s crew who has figured out why things on the ship are the way they are: The cast consists of real people on a fictional television show. And that show isn’t very good. It’s a deliberately cheap Star Trek knock-off, so the dialogue is cheesy, the logic is nonsensical, and the constant redshirt deaths are the show’s only reliable mechanism for creating drama. This is initially funny, but it eventually becomes the novel’s emotional core.
Redshirts’ story becomes especially compelling once the characters decide to take action against their cruel fate. The quest to escape apparent destiny is a common, but Scalzi takes a sudden turn toward ambition. The goofy, winking parody becomes a grand meta-narrative, comparable to Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation or Synecdoche, New York—except on the set of, essentially, Star Trek: Voyager.
From there, Redshirts becomes a criticism of—and explanation for—the narrative shortcuts of science-fiction television. It touches on the value of fiction in terms of dealing with grief and loss. It’s a love letter to the in-depth universes created by the producers and fans of even the least innovative science-fiction television shows. It’s somewhat overambitious, and the narrative dissolves well before the end of the novel, but that never stops the book’s momentum. Redshirts pushes the limits of parody, then revels in the audacity of creation.