Monday, August 6, 2012

Metafiction Done Right: John Scalzi's Redshirts

Ensign Andrew Dahl has been recently assigned to the spaceship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union's fleet since 2456.  And as Dahl tells Maia Duvall, another ensign newly assigned to the Intrepid, he used to be a seminary student on the planet Forshan.  After the religious wars between the four major religious factions on Forshan heated up, all non-natives were advised to leave the planet.  Dahl then traveled to the Academy, where he studied xenobiology and linguistics, leading him to his current assignment in the lab on the Intrepid.

As Maia Duvall tells him, "That's a good story."

The same is true of the novel that relates these events.  John Scalzi's latest book, Redshirts is a good, no, a great, story.

[mild spoilers after the jump]

My initial thoughts when reading the book was that it was quite a bit like the movie GalaxyQuest, the 1999 Star Trek spoof movie starring Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and Alan Rickman.  Like GalaxyQuest, Redshirts draws from the Star Trek series for much of its initial humor.  The general premise of the book is that all the new ensigns--the redshirts--are always dying on away missions, and Dahl and his friends try to find out what exactly is going on.  Although similar to GalaxyQuest in inspiration, Scalzi's novel is clearly its own thing, and after the first few chapters, I became so wrapped up in the plot of the novel that I really didn't think about what else it was like.

Which, by the way, is also worth noting: Redshirts is not just a novel for Star Trek fans.  Sure, you'll get more of the jokes if you've seen it, but the novel is self-contained enough that it is enjoyable, funny, and thought-provoking even without this outside knowledge.

One of the things that I enjoyed most about Redshirts was the way in which it asked larger questions about religion, fate, and free will, without hitting you over the head with them.  The "poke fun at Star Trek" premise makes the whole novel rather light-hearted, but Scalzi carefully includes details that bring substance to back up the humor.  Dahl's former occupation as a Forshan seminary student is no accident, and his understanding of faith, belief, and a higher power ends up being central to the development of the plot.

Another aspect of Redshirts that I really enjoyed was its metafictionality.  I like metafiction when it's done well, and Scalzi's novel does it very well.  He doesn't mix the world of the novel and our world just for laughs, or to show how clever he is--no, the metafiction of the novel is a vital element of the plot of the novel.  Furthermore, Scalzi uses it to raise some very provocative questions about the nature of fiction.

The only thing I wasn't sure about in Redshirts were the three codas, and in particular, the first one.  I know that these codas are a key part of the novel, even making it into the full title of the book on Amazon (Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas), but for me, it meant that the story of Dahl and his shipmates ended sooner that I was ready for it to.  I also wasn't sure that the tone of the narrator of the first coda matched the personality of him that the earlier part of the novel had established, and as a result, the move to this first coda in particular felt a bit abrupt.  Scalzi does some cool things with shifting narrative points of view throughout these codas, though, and the final one brings everything together in a resolution that is heart-warming and satisfying.

Overall, Redshirts, like all of Scalzi's fiction, is well-written, funny, and easy to read, and it also raises provocative questions about the nature of fiction, faith, and free will.  A wonderful novel for both Star Trek fans as well as those who have no idea what the T. in Captain James T. Kirk stands for.

By Jen Miller