Book Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

I’ve recently been on a scifi/fantasy kick, reading everything I can get my hands on. One contemporary author who kept coming up was John Scalzi, particularly for his “Old Man’s War” series. The titles were a little long, however, and I noticed one of his shorter books, “Redshirts,” had won the Hugo award for Best Novel. Clearly it was a quality work.

Boy, was I wrong.

It starts out interesting. New members of a spaceship crew discover that they are side characters and that members of their kind die on almost every away mission. (For those that don’t know, this is a parody of Star Trek, where nameless crewmembers wearing redshirts almost always died on missions to give the illusion that the main cast was in danger.) It’s been done before, like in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” but the setting gives the idea a fresh breath. Scalzi’s humor also helps, as does his impeccable plotting.

Unfortunately, the story takes an…odd turn later on and never quite recovers. I won’t ruin it here but I will say that the twist pretty much ruins the book and unravels the existential fun of the first sections.

This is also a bizarre book in that it tries to be both light entertainment and philosophical, especially at the very end (the book’s full title is actually Redshirts: A Novel and Three Codas, which serve as epilogues for certain characters and also attempt to explore the implications of the universe Scalzi created). The book is light entertainment, but deep it is not. The writing is like a giant thing of cotton candy instead of a steak dinner: it goes down easy at first but after a bit you’re wishing for something more substantial, and finally you wish there wasn’t so much (where was the editor on this book? Plenty of conversations should have been cleaned up). It doesn’t help that Redshirts only takes a stab at seriousness towards the end, by which point such tone changes are jarring rather than intriguing. Ultimately, this mish-mash of different ideas hurts the novel more than if Scalzi had just kept things fun.

Fans of Star Trek will eat this up, as will Scalzi’s admirers, but for others, look elsewhere if you’re craving something scifi or want to try out Scalzi. This is one of the worst books I’ve read in 2016 so far. One day I’ll check out Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” series, but I need some time before I’m ready to read another by him.

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