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John Scalzi's Redshirts Review


Much of the praise for John Scalzi’s Redshirts reminds me of the praise for John Biggin’s A Sailor of Austria. There’s no doubt that just as reviewers applaud, Redshirts is a remarkably funny, ironic, and droll book: it has an excellent ability to poke fun at itself, at science fiction tropes, to throw in irony and a wry turn of phrase which can’t help but make you laugh or smile. But Redshirts is more than just this laughter. The approving quotes on the front cover or back speak of how funny it is, how it is hilarious and a mind-bender: but it above all else has a rich and deep, genuine sadness shot through it, and an introspection which pervades its characters in the end.

Perhaps it is because the book demands that one break the fourth wall, and to think of its characters as people. Of course, every book and its characters ostensibly aims for this: to create identifiable, deep, fully fledged characters. But simply reading them in a book is to just see a snapshot of their life, the brief time when they enter into the spotlight most often, before they exist (unless that is, if it is the average Russian novel with its 1,500 pages of the epic life story of an individual). They are presented in the book simply as something to read, lines arrayed by a writer. Scalzi makes you see them, forces you to look at them as autonomous individuals who must grapple with difficult notions of their own agency, self-determination, and their own purpose in life.

It makes the figures of Jenkins and his dead Wife, or Mathew, a young man paralyzed by a motorcycle accident and only the uptimers can save but who must confront what this salvation means, haunting. That their losses feel so genuinely human, that they have to confront an unexplainable, impossible scenario, is touching and it makes you put yourself into their shoes, to truly consider the world from their eyes. What if your life was turned upside down too, when you were confronted with the prospect that you are nothing more than a plot device, a character, an extra in a badly written TV series, or a resurrected man in a body which is no longer yours?

The philosophical questions which it encounters are deep and fascinating ones: as a character in a TV series, based upon an actor, do you have a soul? To what degree are you a real individual? And it doesn’t just throw out these questions: it tries to answer them, to show that yes, they do: that our lives (for how can we not see ourselves in these people as ourselves?) are our own, and we are not simply the playthings of some omnipotent god or writer.

Scalzi’s constant ability to shift around the plot, to find new angles, to write different approaches, is fascinating. It is a wonderfully humorous and enjoyable transition to the succession of online blog posts in its ironic back and forth between the screenwriter Nick Weinstein and the anonymous audience, or the script that Nick Weinstein wrote with the characters that he had killed off, not knowing that they were real people who suffered real fates of death. Or from this to the saddening contemplation of a person who you had never known, but who you mourned nevertheless: the book’s three portions are dramatically different but all wonderfully enjoyable. The lightning shifts of plot and story, to different genres, are some of its strongest parts, and show real dexterity on Scalzi’s part to come up with such notably different styles.

For both its wonderful humor and irony, but even more so for its fascinating intellectual exercise, its sadness, its introspection, Redshirts is a brilliant parody and story, which has so many twists, turns, and engaging characters. A wonderfully enjoyable and excellent work of science fiction and humanity.

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