(Audio)Book Talk: REDSHIRTS, by John Scalzi

REDSHIRTS, by John Scalzi

Audiobook read by Wil Wheaton (Twitter) (Facebook) (Tumblr)
Tor Books (2012), hardcover (ISBN 0765316994 / 9780765316998)
Science fiction/satire, 320 pages
Source:* Purchased audiobook (Audible Frontiers, 2012: ASIN B0088U1CCO)
Reason for reading: Personal

*I received an ARC of Redshirts, signed by the author, at Book Expo America 2012–and I’ll be keeping that, even though I decided to listen to the novel instead of reading it.

Opening lines (Chapter One):
“Ensign Andrew Dahl looked out the window of Earth Dock, the Universal Union’s space station above the planet Earth, and gazed at his next ship.
“He gazed at the Intrepid.
“‘Beautiful, isn’t she?’ said a voice.
“Dahl turned to see a young woman, dressed in a starship ensign’s uniform, also looking out toward the ship.
“‘She is,’ Dahl agreed.
“‘The Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid,’ the young woman said. ‘Built in 2453 at the Mars Dock. Flagship of the Universal Union since 2456. First captain, Genevieve Shan. Lucius Abernathy, captain since 2462.’
“‘Are you the Intrepid’s tour guide?’ Dahl asked, smiling.
“‘Are you a tourist?’ the young woman asked, smiling back.
“‘No,’ Dahl said, and held out his hand. ‘Andrew Dahl. I’ve been assigned to the Intrepid. I’m just waiting on the 1500 shuttle.’
“The young woman took his hand. ‘Maia Duvall,’ she said. ‘Also assigned to the Intrepid. Also waiting on the 1500 shuttle.’”

Book description, from the publisher’s website:Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, with the chance to serve on “Away Missions” alongside the starship’s famous senior officers. 

Life couldn’t be better…until Andrew begins to realize that 1) every Away Mission involves a lethal confrontation with alien forces, 2) the ship’s senior officers always survive these confrontations, and 3) sadly, at least one low-ranking crew member is invariably killed. Unsurprisingly, the savvier crew members belowdecks avoid Away Missions at all costs.

Then Andrew stumbles on information that transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is…and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.

Comments: I tend to consume my genre fiction in visual form, as opposed to in writing; basically, that means I enjoy watching science fiction and fantasy in TV and movies, but I don’t read a lot of it (The Sparrow notwithstanding). I swear it’s not literary snobbery–it’s just that the more world-building a story requires, the more I seem to need to *see* it to make sense of it. Although I’ve been reading SF writer John Scalzi’s blog for years, I hadn’t read any of his books. Redshirts was going to be my first; I obtained a galley at BEA 2012. By this spring, it had become another victim of “ARC I Still Hadn’t Read Before the Paperback Edition” Syndrome. But there was an audio edition–which reinforced the Star Trek reference of the title by having Wil Wheaton as its narrator–and that seemed like the perfect way to liberate Redshirts from TBR Purgatory. (But I’m keeping the galley, since I got it autographed.)

I understood the premise of Redshirts going in, and expected that it would both reference and tweak conventions of TV and movie science fiction in general and of Star Trek in particular, and Scalzi didn’t disappoint on either of those counts. I don’t think I expected it to have such a sense of humor about the whole thing, though–humor that came across as both snarky and affectionate because it knew its subject so well–and was pleasantly surprised by that. For the most part, I felt that the novel struck a nice balance between the predictable, which I didn’t begrudge because I understood where it came from, and some engaging narrative twists, which I appreciated for the surprise. Although there were times when the whole thing did flirt with overly meta self-awareness, I was consistently entertained.

Although it originated with the red-uniformed security personnel of Star Trek, “redshirts” has become a generic term for the extras and bit players who seem to be elevated to prominence in a story just in time to be killed off in highly dramatic fashion. Familiarity with this concept, and others that comprise a working vocabulary of science-fiction storytelling devices and tropes, is really all that’s necessary to grasp the world-building of Redshirts, but a solid foundation in pop-culture literacy (double-majoring in Comic-Con) and some grasp of the workings of the entertainment-industry machinery will definitely enhance one’s appreciation of what Scalzi does with all of these elements. They did for me, anyway. I’d say that this book hit so many of my personal nerd-girl sweet spots that it wasn’t even funny–except that it actually was funny on top of everything else. For this particular non-reader of science fiction, it’s hard to imagine what could make for a better read. Redshirts isn’t one of those works of science fiction which explores deep philosophical questions–it’s not really “about” all that much other than itself, but it doesn’t have to be. And in audiobook form, it doesn’t really need more than a narrator who seems to be enjoying the ride as much as the reader does, and Wil Wheaton delivers that.

Rating: Book and audio, 3.75 of 5
Other reviews, via the Book Blogs Search Engine

Discussion of Redshirts’ usage of numerous genre conventions, with numerous examples (read: spoilers), at TV Tropes
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