★ 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.
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.