So, I’ve been doing a little thing over on Mark Watches where folks have been commissioning me to watch stuff that’s not on my Confirmed List, or they’ve asked me to re-watch things I’ve seen, since I now have a different perspective having finished said show. It’s fun to do because… well, I get to do more in a day, and it’s always been something I wanted to do on my sites, to have more than one post a day. (That’s partially the reason I also started doing two books/shows at once and alternating between them. More is fun!)
Anyway, we should start doing more of that! I had put up a couple posts recently for The Shoebox Project and Unspoken, but I also want to start doing small bursts of reviews for things I’m reading in my personal time. (Once I’m back from tour, things will happen. Things.) So! This past weekend, I decided it was high time I read something from John Scalzi. Back in the summer of last year, the very first commission I ever got was for a story called The Shadow War of the Night Dragons – Book One: The Dead City. No one told me what it was. So I read it aloud, and it kind of ruined me? Then someone sent it to Mr. Scalzi, and he wrote about me. Then he told everyone to nominate me for a Hugo. So he already ruled in my book? (PS: Nominate me for a Hugo, seriously, and help me figure out who I should nominate, as I haven’t filled out my ballot yet.)
I picked up Redshirts on Saturday simply because my friend and mod SpectralBovine said it was great and brain-melty. Good enough of a recommendation in my book! I knew the title was a reference to a very specific phenomenon in science fiction, coined by Star Trek fans who noticed that those wearing red uniforms were often killed. Like, often. (And let it be known that while I am vaguely familiar with Star Trek, I will become very familiar with it sometime next year, as I’d like the show to take the place of The West Wing once I finish that on Mark Watches. I’ll figure that out when I get there.)
From here on out, I’ll discuss spoilers up to page 103 in chapter nine, so be warned!
I expected this book had to be meta in some form, and both the prologue and first chapter proved that. The first thing that clued me in? There’s a part in the prologue where Ensign Tom Davis realizes that the thoughts in his head just show up. I thought that was strange, strange enough to warrant me paying attention. And then I read about an Ice Shark. (Which might be my favorite exchange in the book so far, because y’all, it is important to think about this. Is it a shark made of ice or one that lives in ice? Maybe it eats ice. THESE ARE VITAL QUESTIONS, Y’ALL.)
And then there’s The Box.
That was my first confirmation that something was controlling the story, and while I entertained the notion that all these tropes were too intentional, I still didn’t expect… well, I’ll get to that. There was clearly something at work here that was either aware of the horrific record of side characters getting killed to boost the dramatic tension around the main cast, or… well, I wasn’t quite sure. Then I meet Jenkins, and I thought that maybe this was some weird parallel universe?
The thing is, as meta as this all was, it didn’t feel like a gimmick. Look, that whole scene where Kerensky drunkenly analyzes his own ability to survive anything is actually quite emotional, so these characters still matter to me. I mean, I was pretty sad when Mbeke died! Also, THAT ENTIRE SCENE WHERE MBEKE AND CASSAWAY WERE KILLED WAS SUPER FUCKED UP. Meta or not, that was an effective horror sequence, and I also genuinely feared that Ensign Dahl would be killed to. Why not? He’d just seen Cassaway’s theory that a single sacrifice satisfied Jenkins or whoever was behind this completely destroyed, so why couldn’t all three of them die?
And the introduction and further use of Jenkins as some sort of sage giver of wisdom was exciting, both because this was totally utilizing a trope I was familiar with (I knew he was going to give some super mind-bending expository speech because that’s what his character does) and because Scalzi was also not using the trope. Sort of. Kind of. I guess? Oh god, that’s half the fun of this. If these characters are merely filling a trope, then is it possible to guess where this is headed?
No. No, it’s not, because page 103 proved this to me. Again, I expected meta. I expected that this book was addressing science fiction tropes. None of this was a surprise to me.
“They don’t exist,” Jenkins said, and pointed back at the ship. “And neither does this. This is the starship Enterprise. It’s fictional. It was on a science fictional drama series. And so are we.”
Here’s the exact tweet I sent out when I got here:
Because, simply put, I DID NOT EXPECT THIS TO BE SO PLAINLY STATED.
Oh my god, so that’s what Jenkins meant by avoiding the narrative. BUT I’M SO LOST. Can these characters actually demonstrate agency at times? Does that mean they are affecting the writers of whatever series they are on, or is that an illusion, too??? I DON’T FUCKING KNOW!
So, I haven’t read beyond this, and I’d like to invite y’all for some fun if you’re interested. I’d ideally like to squeeze a few more reviews out of this, since I just finished writing every post that’s going to go up while I’m on tour. OH MY GOD, I HAVE FREE TIME, IT’S SO WEIRD. If you’d like to commission any chapter for a Mark Reads video, I’ll include it in a review; whatever chapters are commissioned for a live reading will help me determine how to split this up. (While I do have free time, I don’t think I can devote a single review per chapter.)
Oh god, let’s do this. I’m not prepared to be destroyed by this book, but whatever. BRING IT, JOHN SCALZI.