Review: Redshirts

John Scalzi’s Redshirts is an affectionate look at the worst job in fiction – the doomed minor character. As soon as I start writing about the inner lives of minor characters, I wind up twisting myself around the axle of noticing that they’re fictional.  Saying a doomed character doesn’t know he’s doomed forces me to confront the fact that they’re a character – they have no inner life at all, but that’s true of  a main character, too, and  their inner lives are what fiction’s made of, and look there’s that axle again.  Fortunately for his readers John Scalzi doesn’t have these problems.

Scalzi deftly breathes life into minor characters running around the irrational and dangerous Star Trek universe (actually a knock-off of that universe).  He does a fine job both bringing those characters to life and showing us the world in which they live without changing the essential nature of either.  This is a fictional Sci-Fi universe that only makes sense as fantasy; these are not the heroes of that series. Creating interesting characters without breaking those rules is quite a trick.

It’s far from the only trick he pulls off.  As the characters begin to understand their world, they  figure out the tropes of the genre they find themselves in.  This allows plenty of room for commentary on the sorts of world serial fiction creates by looking out from that world.  It’s an interesting and fun perspective.

It’s fun because Scalzi knows these tropes intimately. He can smile with  genre conventions and inside jokes that grow from necessity. He also decries the lazy writing or the corner cutting that springs from a tight schedule, limited talent, or laziness. That distinction is important to him and,  he implicitly argues, should be to us as well.

It’s one thing to point out through meta-fictional games that genre characters are often written worse than they deserve.  The trick that makes Redshirts powerful is that without leaving this world that he constructed to expose all faults and inconsistency of bad wriing, he writes several moving, absorbing, meaningful arcs while sticking to those rules.  It’s one thing to point out hackwork; it’s quite another to show how to transcend genre in the same breath.

Even if you couldn’t care less about what this all says about writing and genre, Redshirts is a fun read. If you do care, it’s quite a lot more.

Strongly recommended.

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