Friday, February 15, 2013

"Live-Blogging" while Reading: A Walk Through John Scalzi's Redshirts

Editor's note: Today, we are thrilled to welcome a new contributor to Fantasy Matters--James Swenson, a mathematician who grew up reading J.R.R. Tolkien and David Eddings.  Today, he "live-blogs" his experience of reading John Scalzi's Redshirts--enjoy!

[4:30 p.m.: pre-prologue]

I guess I can't say I'm setting out to live-blog my trek through Redshirts, by John Scalzi, since I don't expect to post anything until I'm done with the book (if at all). I'm not sure what the right expression is, though, for reviewing on the fly -- reading at the keyboard.

The idea seems suitably "meta" to me: I'm writing for Fantasy Matters, where I read the review that made me pick up this... story about a story. Pastiche? Parody? See, this is the sort of thing I'd know if I'd finished the book already.

In fact, I haven't gotten past the dust jacket yet, so I suppose I shouldn't make any judgments, but a couple are already pressing themselves on me. For one thing, here's the blurb on the back cover, from the amazing Pat Rothfuss: "I can honestly say I can't think of another book that ever made me laugh this much. Ever." I would try reading, say, David Foster Wallace again if Rothfuss gave him that kind of blurb. Maybe even L. Ron Hubbard.

The teaser inside the front cover lets you know what you're signing up for, but it's not necessary: the whole thing is distilled into the title. My opinion is worthless at this point, but I'm thinking Redshirts is one of the world's perfect titles. We already know the story: who these people are, and what their role is in the universe. As I stop to consider it, the title provokes the same reaction -- a slow wave of tingling up the back and over the shoulders -- as Terry Pratchett's dedication in Guards! Guards!:
They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No one ever asks them if they wanted to. This book is dedicated to those fine men.
(By the way, if you haven't read Guards! Guards!, I envy you the experience that is, hopefully, in your near future.)

In short, my expectations are getting pretty high. I hope the book can keep up!

Finally, to recall the "meta" theme, I'm excited to see what it will be like to do whatever it is that I'm doing now. My natural reading style could not be less conducive to this project: I ordinarily read as fast as I can, sometimes skipping involuntarily to the next line of dialogue, always racing to whatever happens next, often postponing sleep to get to the denouement. It should be interesting to find out if I like to interrupt myself along the way -- or if I'm even able.

[Technical remark: Occasionally, I'll mention page numbers along the way. For what it's worth, I've got the 2012 hardcover, ISBN 978-0-7653-1699-8.] [Spoilers follow.]

[5:45 p.m.: Prologue]
 So I'm into the exposition, and it's fun. We join the story in medias res, as the literati say. Our author does his best to manage the dreaded information dump, giving us the background amid crisis via Ensign Davis's internal monologue, but he jumps simultaneously to the meta level, undermining his own narration by conceding its essential implausibility:
Davis shook his head. It was very odd that all that detail about Abernathy popped into his head, especially considering the circumstances.... You really need to start focusing on your current situation, some part of Davis' brain said to him, and he shook his head again. Davis couldn't disagree with this assessment; his brain had picked a funny time to start spouting a whole bunch of extraneous information that served him no purpose at this time. (pp. 10-11)
Though it isn't explicit, you just know that he's wearing a red shirt, and it's not much of a spoiler to say that the circumstances in question herald the death of Ensign Davis. I hope it doesn't make me a bad person, but I'll confess, anyway: His death, when it finally came to pass, made me laugh out loud, then go back and reread page 14, just for the pleasure of finally laughing out loud again.

[8:30 p.m.: after Ch. 7]
The remainder of the exposition, introducing the protagonist, Ensign Andrew Dahl, is taken care of in quick, enjoyable banter with Maia Duvall, another new recruit, as they wait in the spaceport bar on the way to their new assignment on the U.U.C.S. Intrepid. It's quick, enjoyable banter, but leaves Duvall's backstory to be explored later.

We do quickly cast Chief Science Officer Spock Q'eeng as a villain. The subtext is not subtle: Q'eeng is famous, but we're meant to question the quality of his research work -- and by extension, that of Mr. Spock. What sort of respectable, repeatable science could be part of his five-year mission? In my mind, at least, the other officers become villains by association: they haven't yet come into the spotlight enough to earn the title in their own right.

In vindication of the Rothfuss blurb, we get a few legitimate laugh-out-loud passages: one on the subject of ice sharks, and another as the handsome Lt. Kerensky vents his frustration and bafflement. What makes him think, in the heat of the moment, that going on away missions is a great idea, though astrogators are not exactly trained to "take medical samples, or fight killer machines or whatever.... Because it doesn't make sense, does it?" The funniest extended passage, so far, is Chapter 3, in which Dahl learns how to invent a "counter-bacterial" in mere hours.

After a passing mention of Jenkins, as the invisible xenobiologist whom Dahl is unlikely to meet, it's not difficult to predict that he'll be a significant character. He materializes soon enough (p. 49), as a "hairy wraith," to warn Dahl against getting sucked into the Narrative. It develops that his skill as a hacker is responsible for the tracking system used by seasoned redshirts to avoid the command staff. When Dahl goes looking for Jenkins, it's suggested that he doesn't want to be found: Dahl and the other biologists suddenly get sent on an away mission, without warning from the tracking system. Dahl survives, but only because of dramatic necessity: the antivenom that saves the Captain from violent psychosis is made from Dahl's infected blood.

Dahl's lab mates straightforwardly explain what they know about the Sacrificial Effect, and simultaneously present a semi-serious critique of Star Trek's internal logic: how would real ensigns on the U.S.S. Enterprise be likely to react over time? Forced onto an away mission, the Biology Lab colleagues instantly, and fatally, turn on each other. The only possible conclusion is Dahl's: "There's something seriously wrong with this ship." (p. 50)

Naturally, character death is on my mind. Courtesy to the reader usually makes a few characters essentially untouchable: this phenomenon is not unique to Star Trek. I'm trying to guess who those people are in Redshirts. I'm essentially certain about Dahl; I think that, as the female lead, Duvall is safe too. If one of the commanders -- particularly Q'eeng or Kerensky -- died before the dramatic climax, it would certainly be a landmark plot twist. Naturally, it's hard to develop any faith that any of the others will last: apart from Dahl, we don't even learn (or I didn't notice) the shipboard assignments of any of the new recruits. Let's give Scalzi credit for an early Holy Grail reference, too (p. 25).

[9:15 p.m.: after Chapter 13]
Well, things have taken a dramatic turn -- pun intended. The one thing, above all, that I knew about this story was the thing I didn't see coming. Jenkins presents his data: the only spaceship ever with the same risk profile as the Intrepid is... the fictional U.S.S. Enterprise, from the United Federation of Planets. What a shock to find that the characters know what I know!

Bad enough that their lives are being twisted by the writers of a long-ago television show, but worse: "It's not actually a very good show." The characters now face a challenge familiar to those who love science fiction: can they exert their free will against the destiny imposed by hack writers? Early signs indicate that it will be hard to tell.

When I saw the adjective "meta" enter the text (pp. 138, 140), I realized that this review had jumped the shark.
Hester said[,] "We've already established whoever is writing us is an asshole." (p. 140)
[10:30 p.m.: after Chapter 24] 
How will the characters escape their destiny? Thanks to the TV-show physics of their written lives, they will fly a shuttle through a black hole and travel back in time -- but only after kidnapping Kerensky and stealing his pants. Once things move back to Earth ca. 2010, things become a lot less exciting: the cast has predictable difficulty making contact with the producers of their TV series, but the difficulties are smoothed by Dahl's ability to trade the benefits of future tech for the right to self-determination. On the other hand, maybe that's not quite meta enough for Scalzi.

The bright spot here is Dahl's side trip to visit the real-world actress, Samantha, who played Jenkins's late wife. (He has a message for her from Jenkins, who's seeking closure after years of grief-stricken isolation.) The down side is that I need to face my utter failure to understand what was going on earlier. Would it be dishonest to go back and delete my reference to Q'eeng as a villain?

[midnight: completion]
The three codas I've just read aren't just tacked-on endings. They're structurally distinct from the main text, but they're essential to it, because they put faces on the human reality of the book's fictional-crossover conceit. Not to mention that we get a bit more payoff in terms of the plot: Do the characters live happily ever after? What happens next?

If I'm the Senior Writer of The Chronicles of the Intrepid, I might start to think about the unsuspected reality of the character deaths for which I've been responsible, and develop a crippling writer's block. When this overwhelms me, whose support will I be able to hope for?

Maybe you've just awakened from a coma, with no memory of the weeks before the traumatic accident, and no wounds or scars to suggest that the accident you remember actually happened. In this case, you might be excused for wondering what was going on in your life, and whether you could take advantage to find a new direction and break out of the meandering, useless existence you do remember.

Jenkins has made a lurch toward recovery: will it take? Either way, the intrusion of a grieving fictional future husband is bound to have its impact on Samantha's psyche. "Don't you ever wonder about how your life might have been different?" she asks. "And if you could see that other life, how would it make you feel?" (p. 300)

We've come a long way from Borgovian Land Worms. In fact, the novel changes character immediately when the specter of Star Trek is openly acknowledged. The story is no longer driven by Dahl's need to survive: our focus shifts to the characters' newly recognized desperation for meaning in life, and in death. Of course there are books that have covered that ground more fruitfully (Crime and Punishment, for example), but Redshirts is a fun read that definitely transcends the category of parody.

By James Swenson