Thursday, August 1, 2013

2013 Hugo and Locus SF Winner: REDSHIRTS by John Scalzi

Hey, I'm alive!

I have a good streak of reviews for all of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus SF winning novels going, so I thought I'd peek in to keep those up. So, I'm doing Locus-winner Redshirts today, Nebula-winner 2312 in a couple of weeks, and maybe a general 2013 Hugos post before WorldCon. I rather hope that either Redshirts or 2312 wins the Hugo as well. I wouldn't mind reading a third novel if it were good, but I'm not that excited by the other entries. Throne of the Crescent Moon does look interesting, but the word that seems to pop up the most in reviews is "light," which I feel is a euphemism for "this is a generic fantasy adventure in a slightly unusual setting." I would feel bad about ignoring the two female nominees, but I think I've given Bujold and Grant their fair share of consideration. I really enjoyed Miles Vorkasigan's early adventures, but I feel like it's time - at book fifteen - for that series to either wrap up or grow into something different. And Grant's zomblogging series has never really worked for me. If I'm wrong, and you think any of these three are brilliant, let me know.

I like that I'm pretending I still have an audience after a fourteen-month break. :)

I was extremely skeptical about Redshirts as well. The idea of following some of the expendable ensigns on an Enterprise-like ship has potential, but there seemed to be even larger potentials that this novel would be overly meta, or, worse yet, a cavalcade of Trekkie in-jokes. I can't honestly say that Scalzi avoided either of those pitfalls, and yet, I really enjoyed this novel much more than I expected to.

We follow a new cohort of ensigns, led by a former student of an alien seminary named Andrew Dahl, as they join the Universal Union flagship Intrepid in the 24th century. They soon learn that the Intrepid has an alarmingly high casualty rate among those who go on away missions with a small core or bridge officers. They also learn that people often act irrationally, and the laws of physics even seem to change, in events surrounding these officers. Most of the ship's crew goes to great lengths to avoid any contact with them, for fear of being dragged off on a likely-fatal away team mission, but one crewman in hiding spurs them into action when he tells them his theory that the Intrepid is locked into the narrative of an old tv show, and the lethal bridge crew are the stars.

So, yes, the whole thing is a big in-joke, and an old one at that (I know the "redshirts always die" concept goes back decades in fandom). And yes, it all gets very meta as the characters come to understand they are characters, and Scalzi starts to explore the meaning of death in fiction (especially in the codas). But Scalzi still does a great job selling it all. He tosses off plenty of classic space opera plot ideas, and, though The Chronicles of the Intrepid is supposed to be a bad show, some of them were pretty interesting. For instance, he deals with Dahl's religious background well, and he has the feel of episodic space opera plotting down pat. This novel really made me miss Star Trek on television (especially reading it soon after watching another one of Abrams' dumb blockbuster pseudo-Trek movies). It also made me more interested in reading Scalzi's more straightforward sf; Old Man's War has moved up significantly on my "to read" list.

When the novel turns to the more meta aspects and begins to focus on storytelling more, it does lose some of its charm. But, Scalzi, other than short-cutting through a lot of the disbelief that some characters should have felt, manages to do some solid character work and say a few interesting things about writing along the way. I'm sure it's not the most brilliant novel about writing we've ever seen...but we've seen a lot of works in that category. Scalzi keeps his approach grounded, accessible, and character-oriented. In the process, he doesn't match the brilliance of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, Auster's New York Trilogy, or Flann O'Brien's At Swim Two Birds, but he doesn't end up on that steaming mountain of garbage made up of 99% of postmodern metafiction either. The three codas, where Scalzi really starts to spend more time in the "real world" could have been a good deal shorter (especially the second), but they do have some nice moments.

I'm surprised to say, I'd be perfectly happy to see this win the Hugo - even against a more ambitious book like 2312 (though I'm only halfway through it, maybe it will wow me in the second half).

By the way, I listened to this as an audiobook. I think it was paced well for that mode of presentation. Wil Wheaton reads, and I was worried that would be an uncomfortable gimmick, but he acquitted himself well.

Grade: B+