Author: John Scalzi
Date Read: 25/02/2015 – 28/02/2015
I really expected to like this book. Even love it. A book that makes fun of some more of the tropes we love about bad sci-fi? Count me in! Unfortunately, I was left feeling like the book had tried to be clever and missed the mark, and after three years of meaning to get around to reading it, I was disappointed.
Ensign Andy Dahl has just been assigned to the xenobiology lab on the Universal Union’s flagship, The Intrepid. It’s a prestigious posting, but soon Andy and his friends notice that strange things happen to the crew-members on away missions: namely one of them ends up dead, while the Captain and other senior officers never seem to suffer so much as a scratch. As they dig deeper, they learn that the explanation for all this is far more ridiculous than they could ever imagined.
The title of this book is a reference to Star Trek – the unnamed crew member in the red shirt would always die on an away mission, so often that the term “redshirt” is a trope in its own right (warning: TV Tropes link – click at your own risk!). The novel embraces this and plenty of other b-grade sci-fi tropes, and for a while it is quite entertaining. Less than halfway through, however, I started feeling like I was just reading one big in-joke, and while I perhaps expected that a little going in, actually reading it got irritating after a while.
The setting in essentially a thinly-veiled Starship Enterprise. There’s nothing wrong with that and given the subject matter, it’s hardly surprising. The characters, though… I honestly could not tell them apart. There was very little to separate one of the main characters from the other three, and on several occasions, I had no idea which side character was which. There was also a lot of bad science… while that’s kind of the point, I like sci-fi science that doesn’t just leave me confused.
The story itself ends about 100 pages before the end of the book, and what follows are three codas, exploring characters and experiences we had only met or touched on briefly in the main part of the book. It is here that some real depth is added to the prose, but this felt quite jarring after the main story.
As you can see, I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone, but I will say this: it is possible that many of these things I didn’t enjoy in the book (the bad science, the bland characters…) were deliberate choices on the part of Scalzi. Given that [Important Plot Things redacted], it would actually make sense for these things to be that way. But nonetheless, it didn’t click with me, and I was left feeling a little bit like I had wasted my time.
This is my first John Scalzi read, and while I was disappointed, I don’t intend to write him off just yet. I have a couple of his other books on hold at the library, and they sound quite different to this one. Maybe they will be more my cup of tea.