Disclaimer - the below review contains spoilers so if you're thinking of reading this fantastic novel, go ahead and read it; don't let this review ruin it for you.
John Scalzi is an author that has intrigued me for some time. His blog is a welter of diverse and interesting posts and his novels often mix up ideas and scenarios that result in brilliant stories. Enter Redshirts.
The book starts out with us meeting the main protagonists who, it doesn’t take long to work out, are the type of extras in a sci-fi series that we all recognise. They are the guys that get killed in strangely inventive but slightly clichéd ways; they are the ubiquitous redshirt of Star Trek, the character that is introduced at the beginning of an episode and given just enough lines for you to take seriously before he/she is unceremoniously killed for purposes of plot. The parody is well handled by Scalzi and skilfully written never turning into full-blown absurdity but playing with tropes just enough to set the pace of the book.
But, once settled into what appears to be a satirical look at bad space faring TV shows the book takes a very interesting turn. The protagonist Andrew Dahl and his cohorts soon become aware that they are mere extras in some strange fictional world and that they are being manipulated by ‘The Narrative’. Before long they work out that life on their space ship 'The Intrepid' is far more dangerous should you be either a) on decks 6-12 during any kind of battle, b) be on an away team to another planet/spaceship or c) standing next to the captain, doctor, chief engineer or some such other ‘main’ character type when anything happens. Faced with this knowledge Dahl and his friends work out that they are on a show called The Chronicles of the Intrepid and begin to use the fictional world to their advantage, travelling back in time through a black hole to move from their fictional world to the real world where they are written.
As the novel progresses the meta-fiction that Scalzi has created begins to ask some very interesting questions. Dahl begins to question notions of free will, individual existence and what reality really means whilst the awareness of realising that it could all be fiction slowly takes its toll. At the heart of the novel remains an intriguing and well crafted adventure story full of wonderfully realised characters (extras) and set across alternative universes (meta-fictions). The book is a fast and fun read, punctuated with dark humour and driven by a great plot full of ideas. Whilst the post-modern, self-awareness of the parody is great the book is more about the characters and their stories – all of them, even the extras. At the end of the book, Scalzi writes three Codas, each featuring characters peripheral to the main ‘redshirt’ action. All of them deal with some very poignant ideas, not least the last which I challenge you not to be moved by.
Once again John Scalzi has written a novel that surprises and entertains but that also sticks with you long after you’ve finished reading it. Well recommended in my humble opinion.