The Magazine

To Boldly Go

A novel whose characters are re-creating ‘Star Trek.’

Aug 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 45 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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Like most fiction in which the point is the narrative trick, Redshirts is almost impossible to review without giving away the entire turn of the novel. But if we try to keep from spoiling the surprise, the story looks like this: A young ensign named Andrew Dahl is delighted to receive a prestigious posting to the Intrepid, flagship of the intergalactic Universal Union in the 25th century. Curiously, as he makes friends, he discovers that the ship has a number of new members—and all the older members of the crew mutter darkly and hide whenever the captain, science officer, and first lieutenant are looking for people to accompany them down to a new planet. Before long, Dahl and his friends start hearing what happens to incidental crew members—redshirts—who go on missions: death by falling rock, death by toxic atmosphere, death by pulse-gun vaporization, death by shuttle-door malfunction, death by ice shark and Borgovian land worms. 

Even as the young officers figure out that standing beside the senior officers of the Intrepid is the most dangerous job in the universe, they begin to catch on to the strangely scripted quality of behavior and dialogue at moments of crisis. So they pin down the historical moment at which their universe seems to have gone astray, and they arrange to follow the aphysical logic of the ship’s previous adventures to travel back to that time and place—which proves to be our present-day Burbank, California, and the set of a science-fiction television show, which they have to get canceled if they want to live.

For the rest—well, if you want to find out what happens, read the novel, along with the three metafictional codas the author has added. Scalzi has a quick prose and an eye for the comic detail, and Redshirts isn’t a bad book by any means. But it isn’t a classic. In truth, it may reveal more than its author intends about what happens when someone is famous for being a novelist without having written a famous novel, or what happens when
a pretty talented writer is determined to write something—and has absolutely no idea what to write.

Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.