Redshirts by John Scalzi – review

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Redshirts by John Scalzi is a science fiction piece riffing on the fate of the infamous Star Trek “redshirts” – those hapless crew members that beam down to the planet with main cast members and always seem to die. The book starts by looking at the situation from the crew member’s perspective, as a group of new recruits begin to realise that their superior officers seem to be miraculously surviving while all around them anonymous crew are slaughtered week after week. The rest of the crew has developed survival techniques to ensure that they are never, under any circumstances, selected for an away mission.

There have been a lot of reviews about Redshirts and I’m not going to be able to add anything particularly insightful in this one. It was… OK. Writing was good (better than anything I could have produced). Story was interesting enough. I liked the three codas at the end. It gets very cleverly “meta”. It was… OK.

If the previous paragraph feels like I’m damning the book with faint praise, it is entirely possible that I am. I didn’t hate it, but I was never really grabbed by it. The writing was good, but not compelling. The premise was clever, but in some ways a bit too clever. It seemed to get in the way of a stronger story.

Coincidentally, I watched another “meta” work over the last couple of days – Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods. I found it interesting to contrast the two works. With The Cabin in the Woods the story seemed to be more strongly embedded, the meta elements woven in a bit more tightly. The Cabin in the Woods is by no means perfect, but it did feel like the story was being put first. Redshirts felt a bit more like the clever conceit was being put first.

Look, this book is up for many awards, and there are a lot of people that love it. It’s a pretty quick read, and is one of those books that has got a lot of “buzz”. I think it might be one you just have to try for yourself – its “meta” elements are different enough that I’m not sure other people’s opinions are as helpful as normal. If you do read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below. I can’t shake the feeling that I might be missing something.

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.

Update 3/9/2013:

Redshirts just won the Hugo, further proof that I’m probably missing something!

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This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi – review

Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Old Man’s War is the first in the Old Man’s War series of books by John Scalzi. I’ve heard the book mentioned in a lot of different venues and wanted to give it a go before trying some of Scalzi’s later work (including the recent Redshirts whose premise intrigued me).

Old Man’s War is military sci-fi. It is often compared to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and I can see why that is. Old Man’s War brings a modern sensibility to the same themes (humanity beset by aliens across the galaxy and maintaining a vast military machine just to keep our toehold in space).

Our protagonist, John Perry, has just turned 75. This is the age that citizens of the USA can sign up for the Colonial Defence Force (CDF) and go off planet to serve in humanity’s military. Earth is a separate entity than the Colonies and Earth citizens have virtually no visibility about what happens in the galaxy at large. The Colonies have vastly outstripped Earth in technological terms and earthlings sign up on the assumption that the CDF is going to make them young again to fight as a soldier. Survive for your military term (between 2 and 10 years service) and you get to start life again on a colony somewhere.

This was a good pulp read. The prose was clear and crisp, the ideas were cool and there was a lot of action using whiz bang technology.

I enjoyed the way the world was revealed. As an Earth citizen, John Perry doesn’t know anything more than unsubstantiated rumours about what happens in the Colonies. Seeing events unfold through his eyes allows the back story to be sprinkled across the first third of the book without feeling like you were being subjected to huge amounts of info dumping.

The characters were engaging, but not compelling. I liked the main character, but I must admit I found myself getting annoyed that things seem to keep working out neatly for him. His obstacles were all external, things beyond his control that happened to him. And he meets these challenges in the best possible way every time considering the circumstances. This of course is why he is the hero, but I think I would have found him more relatable if he’d had a flaw or two.

Minor characters are often cannon fodder. It is made very clear from the beginning that life expectancy is not very long as a CDF soldier and Scalzi doesn’t let you forget it. The carnage is comprehensive, and if a new character is introduced it is an even-money bet that their narrative purpose is to die horribly to demonstrate a new way in which the universe is a tough place to be.

Scalzi paints on a large canvas. The galaxy is filled with competitive aliens all vying for the relatively small number of habitable planets (although what consists of “habitable” changes from species to species).  I can see why Scalzi has set a few more books in this world, there is a lot of scope for different stories.

The plot touches on a lot of interesting philosophical points without digging into them in great detail. For instance, in response to a hostile universe, humanity has adopted a “shoot first and ask questions later” approach. This position is challenged briefly in one part of the story, but that thread doesn’t really go anywhere. There is enough to make you think briefly but it stops short of being really crunchy.

However I did find the storyline a good antidote for some of the saccharine stories out there that assume that if we can just understand the “Other” as represented by aliens we would all live in perfect harmony. I imagine that interacting with aliens wouldn’t be like interacting with other Earth based cultures, where there is at least a common genetic and behavioural starting point that comes from evolving together on the same planet. “Kill or be killed” seems just as likely an outcome as “galactic federation”, and I liked reading a book that acknowledges that possibility.

So, all in all an excellent pulp read. I’m likely to read the other books in the series including the recent Human Division which is being released as a weekly serial. I find this interesting as it represents a different way of using the internet and eBooks to engage with an audience. I’ll be watching to see how that goes.


I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.

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This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.