redshirts

Never wear red on a space ship.

“From the top of the large boulder he sat on, Ensign Tom Davis looked across the expanse of the cave toward Captain Lucius Abernathy, Science Officer Q’eeng and Chief Engineer Paul West perched on a second, larger boulder, and thought, Well, this sucks.

I like science fiction, as evidenced for my love of Doctor Who, Douglas Adams’s work, and The Martian. However, now we’re all over the excitement of Back To The Future Day, everyone seems to be hyped up over just one science fiction universe: Star Wars. Despite my penchant for spaceships and pulse guns, I’ve never been into Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate or any of those big staples of the genre. Nonetheless, I know enough about them to know what redshirts are.

“Redshirt” is the term given to an expendable member of a team, usually in a science fiction setting. This comes from the fact that in Star Trek, any team heading down to a planet tended to involve the main characters and another previously unseen low-ranking crew member in a red uniform. Invariably, that character would die and the others would emerge from the adventure either damaged but able to be healed, or simply entirely unscathed. This novel turns the concept inside out and plays around with it in exciting new ways.

This is the story of Ensign Andrew Dahl, who has just been recruited onto the flagship craft of the Universal Union, Intrepid. Along with his old friend Hanson and new accomplices Duvall, Finn and Hester, he is to be working on board the enormous ship as one of a crew of thousands, his own speciality being xenobiology. However, he quickly finds one or two things to be a little strange. For a start, none of the other people on board seem to want to spend much time around him, although all are keen to tell him to watch out for any away missions he might be sent on. And if they don’t like him much, it’s nothing compared to how quickly they vanish when a senior officer is approaching.

After a strange incident which involves Dahl having to deliver a message to the bridge personally rather than send it electronically, he and Finn are accosted by a hairy yeti-like man who tells them to stay away from the bridge and out of “the Narrative”. Things only get weirder when the gang start looking at the medial records for the senior officers, in particular those of Kerensky, who seems to suffer a near-fatal illness or accident on an almost weekly basis.

They all decide to do some digging to find out what’s really spooked the other ensigns and establish once and for all why the ship seems to weird and so many people are dying on their away missions. But they find far more than they bargained for…

If you enjoy writers who play around with tropes, lean heavily on the fourth wall, and generally like going a bit meta with their stories, then this is absolutely one for you. And actually, even if you don’t, it’s still a super-quick, easy read that you should get a lot out of. It’s incredibly fast-paced, whipping through scenes and mostly containing fast dialogue between the characters as they struggle to do their jobs and make sense of the situation. I confess that it took me a little while to get into it – the first chapter didn’t grab me quite as I usually like – but power through that and it becomes sublimely genius. Once you’ve got it, you’ll be hooked.

Scalzi is a fine writer (although I say that having only read one of his books) and really knows the medium, allowing him to toy with it and show us all the clichés of the science fiction genre, and then go one further to show why they exist. It’s a new breed of storytelling and one that I hope is cultivated for a long time.

The characters are all as interesting as they need to be – you’ll see what I mean if you read it – and while the plot initially might not seem to make any sense, it soon enough does. Just go with it, and you’ll be in for a rollercoaster of a romp through a genre that often seems to have been milked for all its worth, which is ridiculous, given that in science fiction, one can pretty much do anything.

Funny, fast and unique.

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