There is a well known trope in Star Trek that if a character is seen wearing a red shirt (usually signalling their involvement with a security team) then the chances are they will be dead by the end of the episode. The notable exception to this being Scotty, who presumably uses some kind of warp engine technology to evade the fate that his scarlet threads promise. In Redshirts, John Scalzi takes this idea and runs with it. Actually he completes a hearty jog, the Great North Run, and several marathons if truth be told.
The general premise is that officers serving onboard the starship Intrepid have a very low survival rate when going on away missions. That is, except for the senior bridge crew who always make it home in one piece, or at least once the transporters have reassembled them. The reasons for these tragic deaths are often ludicrous, with people making uncharacteristically daft decisions that then lead to their demise. All this changes though, when a set of rookie officers discover the trend and try to rebel against it, inadvertently revealing the real culprit – a TV show written hundreds of years before, of which they are the unwitting stars. Now they must travel back in time to convince the writers to cancel the show before the Intrepid crew meet their inevitable, grisly, end.
Ok, it’s a fun idea. The settings, comedy deaths, and lighthearted pace all work together to make Redshirts an easy read. But, for me, it just doesn’t really live up to the premise.
Sure, there is plenty in it for Star Trek fans to enjoy, plus several affectionate nods to other classic Sci-Fi TV shows and movies, but after the initial novelty wears off, and the big idea is revealed, it loses a bit of its charm. In many ways it feels a little like a TV episode that’s been stretched to make a feature film, with the story not quite fitting the running time.
In early chapters, where things are just a straight-up parody, it’s a good laugh. Seasoned officers manage to disappear just in time to avoid being drafted onto away teams, while our heroes have to overcome the dangers presented by a variety of creatures whose origins were decided more by budget restraints than genetics.
The idea of coincidence runs firmly through the narrative, but too many times descends into simple convenience for the author. This makes situations easy to extricate the characters from without doing any kind of hard work, and leaves the reader a little cheated. It’s a shame, as there’s much to like about the overall story, with some very tongue-in-cheek moments that I’m sure William Shatner would appreciate.
It’s hard to be too scathing though, after all, it is a book about Star Trek being real in an alternative future while being written in the past. So, it’s always going to be a bit of a stretch.
If you fancy something light, silly, and don’t think too much about how it all hangs together, then there are certainly worse ways to spend a few hours.