A red rag to a genre – John Scalzi’s Redshirts

Redshirts are a well known part of media Sf. The short lived extra characters who die early in the show or to prevent a main character being killed have already been mentioned in passing on the Galaxy Quest parody of media genre. It has a certain culture and expectation which is used and mined. In Redshirts, John Scalzi has taken the idea and run with it for a whole novel which begins taking some surprising turns.

When four new recruits join the Intrepid, they begin questioning the spate of deaths and the equipment that is on board the ship. Hatching a slightly crazy plan, they try to find the person considered responsible before the world becomes slightly more odd. Jenkins, the quarry, turns the book from a caper comedy into a post-modern novel which thinks about the Narrative. He comments to Dahl, the main redshirt protagonist, that “in this universe, God is a hack” (p 218). Through being aware of the narrative and its limitations, the redshirts go on a quest to find the writer and fix what is happening in the original television show.

The appearance of the characters in the real world breaks the fourth wall for the fictional writer. By approaching the writers, the characters realise that they all have a part to play in the new work. The writer is also challenged to stop writing hack work and to improve their game. After the initial crisis is solved, the writer is discussing it with another author who experienced something similar and then gave them agency; making them real characters not just canon fodder. The nub of the matter is whether the writer is doing their best work or writing to order for a deadline.

So the book becomes meta-narrative ostensibly about media but the redshirt appears in books. It does ask questions about writing and whether one is writing at their best. Yet Paul Kincaid has posed the question about whether this is really pushing the genre along and extending it in his article on the genre which references the exhaustion of genre. Redshirts is a fun book and poses some useful questions about genre writing from Scalzi’s own experiences on the Stargate franchise but it is a novel which really speaks to the genre about the genre. It almost becomes a novel about creative writing and a clarion call to improve standards around the genre. Since shows like Star Trek are popular, references will be picked up but this is still an insular book in some ways.

It strikes me more as a creative writing novel than an Sf novel, aiming to encourage readers and viewers to think about the characters and the story. It asks writers to push themselves in stories and characterisation. Should genre still be doing this? Is this not a retrograde step? Questioning genre, any genre, is a good thing. Sf regularly comes back this though: either in meta-fiction or the new . A quiet strand of the novel set in this world is the deal that Sf is easy and does not need thought. It is hack work but how much of this becomes self-fulfilling prophecy. Only writers and audiences can really change this in the long term. This is certainly not an easy task.

That said, this is the first Scalzi novel that I have read and I’ll be trying to find more in the New Year. As a novel, it is a fun caper with a deeper motive. However, it does not necessarily push the genre along. Genre itself needs not only to ask but to do something about itself to push itself along. It should not need attentive authors such as Scalzi to be waving a redshirt to bull in the ring.

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