John Scalzi, “Redshirts” (2012) – Fun (?) fact: John Scalzi is one of the last white men to have a work nominated for the Hugo Award for best novel! This was in 2018, and he shares this distinction with Kim Stanley Robinson. From a cynical perspective, you can say the two men represent the two “acceptable” faces a white male writer can present to the SFF world, at least if you want awards. Robinson has the wonk face, the thoughtful digester of papers and reports about space technology and climate change, a leftist but a thoughtful (read: not especially revolutionary) one. You can also call it “the far face” – it almost certainly helps that he’s been in the field since the eighties, hasn’t thrown racial slurs or weird sex stuff around in his books, and is not on twitter. Scalzi has the nerd face, a sort of Joss Whedon figure (but, doing scifi novels instead of TV and films, does not squat atop our culture in quite the same way Whedon does), lots of quips, lots of genre self-awareness, you can map his work, bit by bit, on TVTropes. His is the near face- he’s on twitter, a lot, and seems to have a well-considered idea of where to stick the knife in, on there- into anybody who kicks against the idea that current scifi (that is, the scifi scene that has made him at least somewhat rich and famous) is the best scifi we could hope for, at least those with the temerity to kick on Al Gore’s Internet. I shouldn’t have to say this, but seeing as this is going out notionally public: I don’t think white men are oppressed, or have bad chances in contemporary SFF, I think the SFF scene as it exists now has prescribed roles for everyone, including women, PoC, etc., and for in-the-club white dudes, the above seems to describe the workable roles. Not my fault!
I’m probably making this more about internal SFF scene politics because A. I’m trying to figure what, if anything, it all means myself, as a pretty outside observer and B. the book itself does not bear that much interest. It’s not a bad book, but it suffers in comparison to an earlier work with similar ideas and energy, namely, the movie “Galaxy Quest.” Like in “Galaxy Quest,” a cheesy scifi space-exploration show – like Star Trek at its most pro-forma – intrudes on the real world. In “Galaxy Quest,” there’s a pretty clever explanation as to why: an alien civilization gets our TV signals, sees the cheesy show, and bases its space exploration on it. “Redshirts” starts out with a somewhat more ambitious premise: the characters lives are being written, as they live, on Earth, as a cheesy scifi serial. So the characters – who are the sort of disposable lower-ranking officers who can be disposed of by scifi writers to show the danger of a given planet or other away team mission, the titular “redshirts” – go through some sort of wormhole and wind up in Hollywood, begging a bunch of low-rent network producers for their lives.
Scalzi’s not a bad storyteller, structurally speaking, does decent action scenes, brings the “mystery” of why the ship is so strange and so many people die along pretty well, and obviously knows his tropes. The problem is, he has too many indistinct characters and none of them really land. There are more redshirts in “Redshirts” than are necessary, except maybe insofar as to give them analogs in the real world and therefore cross-dimensional storylines- this one gets swapped out for a producer’s dying son, that one falls (platonically?) in love with the actor who plays him in our world, etc. I suppose it makes sense that only a few of the characters on the ship have any character – the main characters on the show, who survive numerous terrible incidents while the redshirts die all around them. But it’s a bit of a problem when the less fleshed-out characters are the characters in your book! And there’s seemingly at least one, upwards of three too many!
Those dorky little aliens in “Galaxy Quest” weren’t, like, Ibsen characters or something, but they had characteristics. The washed-up TV stars they drafted into helping them were pretty cliche, but they were well-written and funny. This is more than Scalzi manages for any of his characters in “Redshirts.” I’m probably making it sound worse than it is. Like I said, it wasn’t utterly without good characteristics. But if you’re going to work in a story groove that’s already been pretty well-worn – especially by one, well-loved work like “Galaxy Quest” – you really need to distinguish yourself, and “Redshirts” doesn’t do much to do that. But I guess that’s what the SFF public – or anyway, the SFF scene loudmouths who edit, publish, review, and give awards to books – want! ***