Why Redshirts should be first to die – book review

Mike GristReviews, Science Fiction 14 Comments

Redshirts_Cover Redshirts completely sucks. I cannot say it any more plainly than that. Though it has a neat conceit (right there in the title), it is lazily, utterly derivative, ridiculously boring, and every character within it is not only infuriatingly sarcastic and crassly sexual, but they are also completely the same, indistinguishable from each other.

I quit reading after about 100 pages, because it just so monumentally uninteresting. I cannot for one moment fathom how author John Scalzi won the Hugo Award, unless the voters were so eager to suck up to Scalzi, now head of the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America), that they just voted blind.

I’ll tell you why it is so bad, and why I am so annoyed that it is so bad.

About a year ago I started seeing ads for this book everywhere. The gimmick is that Redshirts always die in Star Trek, and what’s up with that? The book aims to follow these redshirts as they figure things out, and try to do something about it. I could see all that from the ads, but the concept failed to appeal. Then I saw more ads. I read some of Scalzi‘s other books, the Old Man’s War series in particular, which started good and just got pathetic by the end (Zoe’s Tale). Eventually, browbeaten by ads and great reviews, I decided to go for it.



First off, all the characters are just plain annoying. They are smug, self-satisfied bastards, and I hated having to be around them. They are redshirts on a ship, quickly form a tightly-knit unit (just like in Old Man’s War, which itself rips off Joe Haldeman‘s much better The Forever War, amongst other antecedents), and quickly become obnoxious. They are a clique of kids who think they are cool, and prove it by constantly judging everything around them while being too-cool-for-school cynical inside their own heads.

If redshirts are this insincere, let them all die! Part of the beauty of Star Trek was how sincere everything about it was. The characters really cared about what they were doing. To throw some douchebags in who just sneer at everything makes me feel ill. I suppose this is just Scalzi‘s natural voice, or his way of being funny, but it is cheap cheap cheap. Yes I get that this is the gag, put ‘regular’ folks on the Enterprise and watch them get weirded out by the idiosyncracies, but it’s really just annoying when you spend the whole book with them.

But whatever, they are dying in large numbers on this particular ship. Everyone knows, and they hide from going on away missions. They even have the odds worked out- if you go on an away mission with the Spock-like, at least one redshirt WILL die. If you go with the hapless equivalent of Lieutenant Barclay, one WILL die. Etc..

But wtf, they still go on away missions!

This is just another ridiculous side to the cynical view of these characters. They are so ‘not bothered’ that they will go to their deaths rather than make a fuss or decline to go. Why? Why?

Oh yeah, because that’s the plot. But that is just weak.

That’s to say nothing of how crass the characters are. Scalzi is clearly trying for some of the sexual liberation of Heinlein or Haldeman, but what he comes up with is just sophomoric, a child’s approximation of what it thinks adults might say. Go pin bacon to your cat, Scalzi. Real people do not say “oh, you’re right, I owe you a blowjob” to each other, like it is this great an charming witticism. It is not. If real people do say this, they are not people I want to read a book about.

PLUS, the characters are all utterly interchangeable. There are some guys (girls? does it matter?) with very similar J-names. At the beginning they all meet in a mess of dire ‘flirty’ dialogue, offering blowjobs to each other, scrutinizing each other for any sign of sincerity, probably so they can pounce on it. Phew, happily they are all sarcastic sycophants anyway, so no worry there. Do not worry that from then on, though there are 5 or 6 of them in total, there may as well be only two. One to be the voice character, and one to be a mirror.

Scalzi did this same thing in Old Man’s War, a bunch of annoying punning characters get together and pound and be sarcastic. At least there though he had a conceit that could carry a novel.

This doesn’t.


There is no plot. At least not in the first 100 pages, and after that I quit. For 100 pages the redshirts offer each blowjobs (ha ha, they don’t really mean it, it’s a witticism!), going on away missions even though they know someone will die, bitching out the senior officers, and half-heartedly trying to figure out why people are dying.

Excuse me, I think it’s the only thing they’d be doing. I’d say, “Get me the F off this ship! I will not die on an away mission!” Because why not, what’s at stake? They’ll relegated to another ship? Erm, yes please.

So it takes 100 pages for them to start getting to the core of it, which turns out to be this annoying meta-conceit: their ship is being written by an SF screenwriter deep in the past, and he is lazy and likes to kill redshirts. But 100 pages to get to that? It could have been done in 20.

So what was actually happening in those 100 pages? Besides the BJs and cliquey cynical back-patting (is it to Corey Doctorow that we owe this ‘voice’? God I’m sick of it.), there are sections that just rip off the obvious, awkward bits of Star Trek. Like, Spock always saves the day with some arcane bit of knowledge. Like- Lieutenant Barclay always gets sick and beaten up, but never dies. Oh fun. Which leads to the next problem.

It’s just a big rip-off!

Obviously. Scalzi is surfing someone else’s life’s work (uh, Gene Roddenberry) while flipping it the bird. No, I am not that sensitive. He just doesn’t seem to care, nor is he wiling to make any effort to add anything.

First off, nothing is described. Every set Scalzi uses he probably imagines we have seen a thousand times before, so he doesn’t bother to describe any of it. So everything is utterly generic, and he depends on Star Trek wholly. The same goes for characters. There is just no solid sense of time or space. It’s one thing to ‘let the audience use their imagination’ to make things vivid, it’s another to depend so completely on another person’s IP. At no point does his version of Starfleet seem fresh or original.

All he has are a series of potshots that EVERYBODY KNOWS. REDSHIRTS DIE. WE GET IT!

So why am I so angry?

I’m angry because I knew it would be bad before I read it, but I let myself be convinced by reviews that it might have some merit. It is very far from having any merit. I was hoodwinked, folks, my $6 is gone (or whatever it cost), and so is my time.

No more Scalzi for me, possibly ever again. Please no more sarcastic, disaffected, insincere and cynical paper cutouts for characters. It is not what comedy is!

Do not read this book, do not encourage him.

How to fix it

I often include a section on how to fix stories I think are bad. This story however cannot be fixed. It should be taken out to the barn and shot. Not to worry, it won’t fight, it’ll just sigh sarcastically and go with you. Best for everyone, really.


John Scalzi

Comments 14

  1. HI. I’m a reader of Scalzi’s, though I haven’t read Redshirts yet so I can’t comment on anything particular about it. And I’ve had you in my RSS feed for a while now as well. While that doesn’t necessarily make me impartial, I don’t think my feelings influence my reaction to this review.

    You should absolutely give something a bad review if you didn’t like it, so I have no argument with you there. But you might want to limit ad hominem attacks–or possible it was a weak joke–especially when they are easily revealed as inaccurate. Scalzi is not the president of SFWA and has not been since June, a month before the end of the Hugo voting period. Some people have different taste than you and that’s just they way life is.

    You talk through the review about how you don’t like Scalzi and how you started this book expecting not to like it. It really seems, then, that you would be happier just not reading his stuff. As I said, I haven’t read this one yet, and maybe it really does fall flat. A good negative review, even of a work I enjoy–can be a fun read but the vitriol in your review combined with factual inaccuracy and your apparent misunderstanding of the function of italics made this one just a chore. And yes, I may well take my own advice and just not read any more of your reviews if this tenor is typical of them.

    I will still read your haikyo stuff and would like to take this opportunity to thank you for them.

    Oh, and I can’t find a reference but I think Scalzi has said that he had not read The Forever War prior to writing Old Man’s War. If I remember that correctly, it would be rather hard for him to rip it off.

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      Thanks for following my RSS xaaronx, and thanks for this comment (warning me, I suppose).

      Negative reviews, vitriol- you’ve got a good point I think. I don’t want to put people off by being a downer, that’s why I’m going to try and post at least one good review/recommend for every bad one, if not more. For example, at the same time I posted this review, I also posted a glowing review of Wool / Shift / Dust, which I loved.

      So, don’t give up on me yet :).

      About the ad hominem stuff, yeah maybe it was a bit below the belt, but more at the people who vote for the Hugo than anything else. Perhaps that is a dumb move for someone (a writer) who would love to court those same people. Well, yeah.

      And the Forever War correction, fair point also. Perhaps more Starship Troopers then, he must have read that.

      Your advice- I might be happier not reading his stuff- right, that is what I expect I will do.

      Finally, thank you- I appreciate you reading my haikyo stuff.

  2. “I cannot for one moment fathom how author John Scalzi won the Hugo Award, unless the voters were so eager to suck up to Scalzi, now head of the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America), that they just voted blind.”

    As a matter of clarification:

    1. The Hugo Award is given out by the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS), not SFWA. SFWA gives out the Nebula Awards. SFWA and WSFS are not interrelated in any way on a corporate level. I do not hold nor have ever held an officer position with WSFS (I was Toastmaster at a Worldcon once, which was not a position with any governance participation).

    2. I left the presidency of SFWA at the end of June, before the closing of the voting window for this year’s Hugos.

    3. As a possible relevant data point for the hypothesis that people award Hugos to suck up to SFWA Presidents, I will note I was nominated for a different Hugo while I was President of SFWA. That year, I came in dead last in the category.

    4. For the record, Redshirts was nominated for a Nebula Award while I was President of SFWA. I declined that nomination, to, among other things, avoid that suggestion that any possible win would be due either to me taking advantage of my position, or to people sucking up to me due to my position.

    My own thought on your hypothesis, therefore, is that while it is possible, it seems unlikely. This is not to say some voters did not offer me votes in order to suck up to me; only to suggest that if they did, it was likely for some other reason entirely.

    My own personal hypothesis as to why it won is that, against all expectation of sense and reason, a controlling number of voters enjoyed the novel. I note this is only a hypothesis; I have not done extensive data analysis on the matter.

    This factual quibble aside, I had fun with this review. I appreciate a good one-star review, and this is a pretty enjoyable one. Thanks!

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      All excellent points, thanks for enumerating them here. I’m very happy to concede that a lot of people liked Redshirts, enough to win it a Hugo. It would be ridiculous not to, especially after you’ve explained everything above: that you weren’t even president at the Hugo time, the Hugo is not the Nebula, etc..

      I liked this-

      “This is not to say some voters did not offer me votes in order to suck up to me; only to suggest that if they did, it was likely for some other reason entirely. ”

      Such is life.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the review despite all that. I wish I could have ranked it higher. Probably, for fairness, I should put up a review of Old Man’s War too, which (not that this will be particularly world-shattering for you either way) I did like. Probably four stars, actually.

      Oh, and thanks for the link. If I tear into Corey Doctorow, will he link here too? 😉

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  3. Awesome review. I quite liked the book, myself, but your review was fun.

    My friends would *totally* say “wow I owe you a blowjob for that” after some particularly funny witticism or generous favor, but that’s cool that our sort of banter isn’t your cup of tea.

    Keep up the good work!

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      Right on, Evan!

      As you say re: owing blowjobs- it’s different strokes for different folks, and that’s fair enough. I suppose part of my problem with it was it made me think of recent news about all the rape in the military, and how being blase about the whole topic seemed a bit off.

      Of course it’s different, this is science fiction, but that was part of what turned me off about it.

  4. John Scalzi actually linked me to this review. This was the first of his books that I’ve read, and as a Trek fan, I liked it. Your points may be valid, but I feel the book was written that way for that reason. If you choose to tough it out and read the rest of the book, I’d be interested to read your thoughts on how it turns out.

    In my opinion this is the Galaxy Quest of Star Trek novels. It pays homage to the source material while giving us an alternate way to think about it.

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      Hi Mike, and no doubt you’re right it’s filling a Galaxy Quest-size hole. Though I attacked the parody of Trek-unique things in the review above, I suppose they were kind of fun. I was too far annoyed at the whole thing to enjoy them by that point, though.

      If you liked this one, you must like Old Man’s War too, probably even more. I recommend it.

  5. I agree. I almost, ALMOST, put it down after the startling revelation about 100 pages in. But I muscled through it. I can’t say that I am all happy with that decision.

    I almost shit my pants after I found out about the Hugo award, also.

    But what really got me is that Scalzi has written so many better books than this. Like, Heinlein level good. They’ve asked big questions, something I think is lacking in modern sci-fi. But then this dribble…

    I can honestly see why someone would love this book. I had a friend who would not shut up about the film “Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead”. I gave it a chance and had to turn it off after about ten minutes.

    Someone mentioned Galaxy Quest a while back. And I’ve thought long and hard (heh) about why I liked it much, much more than Redshirts. Here’s my hypothesis: In Galaxy Quest it starts in ‘real life’ and goes to the ‘fantasy world.’ In Redshirts the ‘fantasy world’ gets brought to ‘real life’. Just a thought.

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      Glad I’m not alone in this, Heath. I’m wholly with you that Scalzi has written better books- though I wouldn’t myself compare him to Heinlein.

      About the Galaxy Quest thing, it’s an interesting point. My take on it is that Galaxy Quest, while a nodding, winking parody, wasn’t populated with characters who were also nodding, winking, AND cynical/sarcastic parodies. They took their own lives seriously, like regular people do. I think Scalzi’s worst crime in Redshirts may be the ‘easy breezy’ cynical voice, that suggests that nothing matters, have a blowjob, here we go.

      If the protag and his friends don’t care enough about living to DO something about their predicament, why should I care? Instead they’re all this horrible underclass of whiners, pointing out how they’re superior to the bridge crew, tearing them down, while mindlessly going to their deaths.

      I think he gets away with it somewhat in Old Man’s War, because the characters had all basically accepted they were going to die, so whatever, let’s get it on. Not here though.

      Yep, that plus everything else, though it was the whiney/cynical voice that did it for me.

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