In writing, you must kill your darlings. –William Faulkner.
Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of. –Kurt Vonnegut.
Writers are always selling someone out. — Joan Didion.
This week: Redshirts by John Scalzi.
This was actually the first Scalzi book I read. I was hooked from the prologue. The novel deals head-on with a question we all have had after watching our first episode of televised SciFi (I’m looking at you, Star Trek). Namely: why do characters do things that will obviously get them killed in predictably stupid ways?
Short answer: because the story demanded it.
Long answer: because that’s how the writers wrote it and here is why they wrote it that way.
We don’t get all this up front, of course. The format of the story is very much like a TV show. Scenes and dialogue are written perfunctorily, with a minimum of explanation and introspection. TV is an expository medium, so the book reads in much the same way.
Our protagonist is Ensign Andrew Dahl, newly assigned crewman to the Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union (aka “DubU”).
Dahl’s first few weeks of duty are normal. Desk work, drills, assignments in the xenobiology lab. Dahl starts wondering about his coworkers in lab after he notices strange behaviors. Like whenever the ship’s Science Officer comes around looking for bodies to put on an away mission, Dahl is somehow the only one in the room. There’s also an alien gizmo in the lab known as The Box, which will deliver an analysis of any substance put into it–but never a complete one. The result always necessitates a visit to the bridge where Science Officer Q’eeng can cluck over it, make a few changes, and then hand the complete data back to the messenger with instructions on what to do with it.
It gets weirder. One crewman named Jenkins has taken to living in the cargo spaces between decks to avoid what he calls The Narrative. “Stay off the bridge,” he tells Dahl, “Avoid the Narrative. The next time you’re going to get sucked in. And then it’s all over for you.”
Ultimately, Dahl does get noticed by the Captain and his officers and does get assigned to away missions, where he watches his fellow crewmen destroyed by events apparently beyond their control, but somehow not. If a root is sticking out of the ground, someone will trip over it. The weapon the security guy pulls out is exactly what will drive the man-eating worms into a killing frenzy, even if no one in charge mentions that fact in the mission briefing.
Even the captain has noticed that things explode on the bridge whenever a battle with an enemy ship comes out, even if that other ship is pathetically underpowered compared to the Intrepid. “There is not a damn reason why everything on the bridge has to go up in sparks every time we have a battle,” he gripes to Dahl.
Along the way he watches his coworkers literally disappearing in hails of bullets, consumed by life forms filled with teeth, destroyed by killer robots that sprout new weapon at will, and otherwise lost to the drama of one away mission after another.
Before long, Dahl is learning that the Narrative is not just a metafictional construct but a persistent dimension that intersects with the ship and her crew. Ultimately, Dahl learns that today’s events are being directly influenced by events deep in the past and that it’s possible to get there using physics that only exist around certain crew members and that’s where shit gets real, as the kids say.
What follows is a masterpiece fourth wall osmosis that twists What Is around What Cannot Be, secures it with Because I Said So and sends your sense of perspective screaming into the darkest forest in the process. Everything can and does make sense if you just learn the rules of the universe and follow them to their natural conclusion.
The real gems of the novel don’t appear until one gets to the final three ‘Codas’, one each written from the first, second and third person point of view, each narrated by a character only tangentially dealt with in Dahl’s story, but just as essential to the plot. They nicely resolve what few loose ends appear and make complete sense in so doing.
Scalzi insists that the book has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that he worked as a creative consultant on Stargate Universe for two years, and I believe him. I watched SGU, I liked it. The writing was solid, even if I personally consider SG:Atlantis to be the best part of the Stargate franchise. Having said that, I can see how a reader with some experience watching TV would think of this book as a memoir in disguise. Tina Fey for instance was very up front about the fact that 30-Rock was based on her experiences at SNL. But fiction in general and particularly television or movies can be disconnected from reality, which is why it’s fun. (They don’t call it escapist for no reason, folks). For the first three seasons, Numbers had an actual mathematician on staff as a consultant and the writing made sense. He left at the beginning of Season 4 and that was the end of that. The writers of Eureka were more focused on what they wanted: whatever they thought was cool, they wrote about; sometimes the science made sense, sometimes not so much. In an industry where Randy Quaid can blow up a mile-long spaceship with a Harpoon anti-ship missile or California can slide into the Pacific Ocean, fans overlook the impossible bits of our favorite shows because they’re favorites.
Bottom line: Redshirts is a brilliant book, a great read, and will appeal to anyone who has ever thrown a shoe at a TV.