This is a book that really shouldn’t work but then really does. Its basic concept is a joke about the hapless crew members of sci-fi starships who always end up dying on alien planets while the clearly identified main cast survives against all odds. This is a well known phenomenon that became famous during the various iterations of Star Trek (which gave rise to the actual term “redshirt,” due to these expendable crewmembers’ uniforms) but has a long and sordid history throughout fiction due to authors’ and other creative types’ understandable reluctance to kill off their protagonists. (There are related tropes, such as Black Dude Dies First, that are motivated by even more sordid concerns but there’s no need to get into that here.)
The basic premise of Redshirts is that the redshirts are the protagonists of this book. They slowly start realizing the extreme hazards of their menial positions, as well as the confounding invincibility of the captain, science officer, chief engineer, etc. And, as new crewmembers quickly discover, there is an informal and very creepy assignment system to ensure that the guaranteed-to-be-fatal Away Missions are given to the newbies who haven’t yet copped to the problem.
So far this sounds like a pretty thin basis for a story — and it would be if that’s all there was. But Scalzi does a couple of things. First he takes the story on a bizarre meta-fictional turn that many people won’t like; I was only lukewarm to it myself. But then, in the midst of this postmodern twist, he reaches for the heart strings and really scores a punch.
What I’ve always liked about Scalzi is his total lack of fear about big emotions. He doesn’t care about being melodramatic or mushy or whatever. He just swings for it, portraying love, loyalty, passion, what have you — without irony, and with complete conviction in the rightness of his characters’ feelings. Sometimes it doesn’t work and you end up feeling a little bit left out. But more often than not his novels end up feeling big and warm and emotionally fulfilling, and it’s all because he’s ballsy enough to have his characters feel, and feel hard.
This book is no different. All sorts of characters, in all sorts of bizarre ways, get the opportunity to confront their deepest fears and desires (that’s why the book needs “three codas,” as its subtitle promises). It’s artificial and manipulative — and, for reasons that escape rational explanation, effective. Redshirts won’t work for everybody, but it worked for me.