Science fiction is idea fiction, you often hear—and it’s true. In a way. But trying to describe how it’s true proves surprisingly difficult, for the ideas in science fiction are much more often about the fiction than about the science. The rootstock isn’t the technological flourishes; those are the pretty flowers that distract the eye from what the stories are actually doing—which is training up tropes and memes and metafictional references.
Lots of its authors, and a slew of its readers, like to think that science fiction sails on the ocean of science, but mostly it just paddles in the shallows of literature. Most genre fiction works this way, of course. Think of mystery stories: In her 1926 masterpiece The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie started with the notion of having the book’s narrator be the murderer her detective is trying to uncover. In his 1946 classic The Big Clock, Kenneth Fearing began with the spark of having the detective himself be the unknown subject the detective is ordered to pursue. Those aren’t ideas of police procedure or detection; they’re ideas about literary construction.
Unlike mystery stories, however, science fiction tends (in my experience, at least) to work better when the authors don’t admit to their audiences, or even themselves, that they are manipulating literary conventions. I like my science fiction innocent.
And one thing you cannot say about John Scalzi is that he is innocent. His latest isn’t a story so much as an extended comic account of what happens when, far in the future, a set of characters in a starship begin to realize that they are reenacting the lives of characters from an ancient television program. As a parody of Star Trek, Redshirts brings us into the territory of the very funny 1999 movie Galaxy Quest—in which, to their surprise, the washed-up actors from a television space opera discover that, oh my God, it’s all real! As a violation of the fourth wall, in stepping out of the frame of narrative fiction, Redshirts basically treads the path that Eugène Ionesco’s plays laid down in the 1950s—a path that, nowadays, has been paved into an eight-lane freeway roaring through the heart of Hollywood, from Last Action Hero (1993) to The Truman Show (1998) and Stranger Than Fiction (2006).
John Scalzi is interesting as someone who has built a writing career in these strange days. He spent a few years writing movie reviews after college before landing, in 1996, a sweet gig at America Online as editor and in-house writer. Laid off in the meltdown of AOL, he took to writing guidebooks for the money and science fiction blog posts for the fame. Or, at least, the dribs of money and the drabs of fame. The blog, called “Whatever,” proved enjoyable for readers—a few years ago, he issued in book form selections entitled Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded—and it successfully established him as a voice to be reckoned with in the field.
Consider, for a moment: Through the wonders of Internet writing, Scalzi was able to make himself mildly famous as a science-fiction writer before he’d actually written any science fiction. A contract with Tor Books followed, and, in 2005, Scalzi published Old Man’s War—a pretty good, if a little self-conscious, story of the battle to preserve humanity’s interstellar colonies, fought by galactic armies formed from the rejuvenated old people of Earth. He followed up his first entry with three sequels set in the fictional universe of Old Man’s War: an old manuscript resurrected as the entirely enjoyable Agent to the Stars, an interesting commercial flop called The Android’s Dream, and Fuzzy Nation (a TV-style rebooting of the universe of a 1962 science-fiction juvenile by H. Beam Piper). Along the way, he served as president of the Science Fiction
and Fantasy Writers of America, and maintained his blog.
Oh, and he wrote this latest novel. Maybe the effect of all this nonstop activity is starting to show. The joke of the title lies in its reference to the old Star Trek program, in which, in any given episode, Captain Kirk, Science Officer Spock, and Dr. McCoy would join a security team to beam down to an alien planet—the dangers of which would be revealed by the death of a red-shirted member of the crew before the first commercial break.
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.