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+


  1. The only way that I'd read another one of Grant's books would be if reviews were peppered with phrases like 'bold departure from previous style' and 'rapid maturation' or something like that. Can't stand her writing.
    I've only read early Bujold but, yeah, I'd be surprised if her current stuff is the best of the year. The Hugos need to add a Hugo for Best series. Then they could award these type of things and move on to awarding recent achievement.

  2. I was not extremely impressed by the Hugo nominees this year, but I agree that this one and "2312" are the strongest of the lot (I also haven't quite finished reading "2312", though). For "Throne of the Crescent Moon", ""this is a generic fantasy adventure in a slightly unusual setting" is spot-on, the Bujold felt like a recap novel, and while I thought "Blackout" was better than "Deadline", I don't think it's really Hugo-worthy. Redshirts might be based on one big joke, but it was very fun to read :).

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

    You can thank my RSS reader for that.

    I was middling on Redshirts. It was... fine. My problem with Scalzi's lighter books is that I don't think his dialogue is that funny and ALL of his characters are exactly the same sarcastic, thinly-veiled version of himself (even in the OMW books, when they are often aliens).

    Funny that you mention the audiobook, as I thought the reading of Redshirts was kind of bad. All the characters sounding the same on the page is not helped by Wil Wheaton reading them all in the same voice/cadence. Also, once you notice the "x said" attributions after every line of dialogue, it gets REALLY annoying.

  4. Hooray for RSS readers!

    Dr. Allie,
    thanks for confirming my take on (fear of?) the other nominees. Useful info.

    As always, glad we're on the same page on Grant. With Grant and Bujold and a few other perpetual nominees (Robert Sawyer?), I almost wonder if some sort of fan appreciation award might fit better than a series award. I'm not sure I really like that idea, but it does seem like there has been a weird clash in the types of novels getting nominated in the past few years.

    I can't disagree with your points about the dialogue, though I would say that the list of science fiction writers who really do differentiate their characters' voices is a lot shorter than the list of those who don't (rereading some Asimov at the moment, and he really has this problem in a lot of his work).

    I can also see how the sarcasm thing fits in with Wheaton as a reader - the Scalzi-voice is not so different than Wheaton's own personality, but that was part of what I liked about it. I can see why he bothered you though, and he certainly was not on par with some of the better professional narrators, but I adjusted to his tone quickly, and there were times where I thought having someone from the world of sf tv was a nice touch.

  5. In many ways, Redshirts feels like something Scalzi wrote for fun and never intended to publish. It lacks the creative heft of much of his other work and is probably not worth purchasing at full price. It's not terrible, but it's not worth the brief amount of time it takes to read it.

    Marlene Detierro (Skagway Fishing Charter)

  6. Hmmm, when I said that I'd be perfectly happy to see this win, I didn't think it actually *would* I'm feeling less certain (and all you commenters with your smart critiques aren't helping the situation).

    Oh well, 2312 review coming....someday...

  7. Rereading my review of this and 2312 2.5 years later, I'm glad this won after all, though it seems to be an unpopular recent winner overall.