Before you read this review, let it be known that this is very spoilery for the book itself! If you prefer to experience things without knowing anything that will happen, do not read on. But if you like spoilers like I do, then please read on!
I recently attended a meetup sponsored by Tor.com, and one of the perks included giving away many numerous upcoming releases to attendees. It was a tough decision to make; all of them looked very interesting, especially as I’m a big fan of sci-fi and fantasy. There were more than a few titles I wrote down and will check out once they are released, but in the end, I took a copy of John Scalzi’s upcoming book Redshirts. It wasn’t my first choice out of the unique selection, and for the first hundred pages I was definitely regretting my choice in adding one more thing to my tiny NYC sublet, but by the final coda (out of three), it managed to pull me in.
Redshirts, a reference to a sci-fi term which describes the side characters in a TV show that hang out in the background until they are pushed to the front, handed a tragic back-story, and killed off in one single episode as a plot device to cause grief for the main characters, starts off at a slow pace. Rather, it felt slow because the main character is simply told what the problem was instead of figuring it out completely on his own. To his credit, helps figure out the solution , puts together a plan to reach the solution, and then executes it, but it all melds together in one long session of ‘infodump.’ Because of this, the characters aren’t as realized as they could be. On one hand, writing the characters like this fits the story because the characters themselves are meant to be ‘extras,’ those people in the background that all blend together until the camera deigns to give them their moment in the spotlight. By allowing them to only become important and independent at the very end of the book mirrors the actual fate of a ‘Redshirt,’ but subverts the trope by allowing each main character to live. On the other, leaving your most exciting plot points until the very end is a choicy gambit, which assumes that your reader will want to keep reading until it picks up. The book gains much heart at the end after the characters make the decision to change their fate.
The best part of the book is the plot. As slow as the book starts out, you want to keep reading just to see how everyone’s problems are solved. It’s very post-modern, as the characters in the series realize that they are fictional characters in someone else’s story, which is something I enjoy very much. Not only that, but they realize that their entire existence in this universe as it stands right then is as simple cannon fodder and due to die at the whim of someone else, and because of that they vow to change their grim fate. At one point, the book comes very close to smashing the fourth wall into pieces by hinting that perhaps these characters, who are the extras of this TV show, may be the stars of something else, like a novel. It riffs on Star Trek and all those other sci-fi shows with conveniently places extras willing to die for the high ranking main characters, and what’s better, it completely revels in it. You don’t have to be a geek to figure out the connections between Q’eeng and his Trek counterpart and other nods to the sci-fi classic due to osmosis into mainstream culture, but if you’re already familiar with the series and its tropes, you’ll appreciate Redshirts even more.
Redshirts is due to be released in June 2012.