Redshirts: A Readers Response

I’ve done something recently that I hardly ever seem to do: read a book soon-ish after buying it. Especially one that is a new release! In Hardcover! (Proof on my shelf: Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation, Kowal’s Glamor in Glass, and Stross’s Trade of Queens, Atrocity Archives, Rule 34 and Apocalypse Codex… all bought new in hardcover, all still unread. That’s not even counting the copies of both Stross & Scalzi books that were the featured titles for the past two Boskones.)

Today, however, having made one small triumph in the “read something actually current,” allow me to offer my couple of coppers on the title in question. If you read the title here, you know what I’m talking about. John Scalzi’s Redshirts, which was released a little over a month ago now. The original title indicated a “a novel with three codas”, which I discussed my wariness about here. Simply put, “How the hell did the Codas play out?”

That’s probably why I wanted to read it now, as a study in stylistic approach (for the concept, not so much the book itself). Without further ado, here we go, and I will try to maintain as spoiler-free a commentary as I can…

I was disappointed, but in a good way, with the main story itself. (Keep in mind, I have not read any other Scalzi novel at this point, mostly just his blog, Hatemail, and Coffeeshop.) When I first heard about the project, and as I started reading, I had this image of all of the events taking place within the confines of the ship – “What happens when some of the Redshirts start comparing notes?” That was actually one of the early pitch blurbs I remember circulating.

What I wasn’t expecting, which is that point of happy disappointment, was for the story to go meta (slight spoiler, sorry). As it was happening, the writerly side of the brain was going “Duh! How else could things have ‘realistically’ played out in the context of the narrative.” (Another running joke, that. “The Narrative.” Plays into the meta concept.)

I read some of the reviews that crapped all over the book. Are they valid? Meh… depends on what you’re into, and if you really get what’s going on. I think I got it… a hybrid of homage and parody of Star Trek, and SF television shows in general, especially those written lazily. Reading it through that filter: the book is conceptually handled in a genius fashion. Is it destined to go down as one of the greatest contributions to SF Literature? Will there be hordes of ravenous fans lining this book up against the likes of Heinlein, Asimov and Bradbury works? Probably not for the main novel.

What really got me, though, were the codas. In terms of technique, each of them are in different points of view (1st, 2nd, and 3rd, respectively), and generally different voices and styles. The last five pages of the book, in the Third Coda? One section in there and I had the feeling of Scalzi ripping my heart out so I could see it beating before he tucked it back in for a potentially happy ending.

The ripping of the heart thing? Don’t try to look for it until you have read everything else… that’s when you’ll get the most of the emotional resonance.

So, the Redshirts story itself? A fun read if you can appreciate the source material being poked at with a huge pole-arm of a stick. But Scalzi called it right, it’s the addition of the Codas (and how they were handled) that really makes the whole thing click.

At least, that’s how it worked for me.

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