THERE’S AN ARGUMENT — a tendentious but not an unfounded one — that much of science fiction can be understood as fan fiction. That’s true not only in the facile sense that many professional SF authors began their career as fans. If we understand fan fiction as work that responds closely and intensely to a prior work, then many classic SF texts fulfill this criterion. It’s easy to see, for example, James Tiptree, Jr’s 1976 novella “Houston, Houston, Do You Read” as a response to Joanna Russ’s 1972 story “When it Changed.” Both posit an all-female society, and both posit the consequences of a first encounter between that society and human males. Similarly, consider the extent to which — both in tone and in detail — Alfred Bester’s 1956 novel The Stars My Destination stands behind William Gibson’s Neuromancer. The peculiar intensity with which SF works engage in this sort of dialogue is partly due, I think, to the community that’s grown up around the field. Writers meet and talk with fans at SF conventions every week of the year; it’s no wonder that ideas cross back and forth between the two groups. What conventionally gets called fan fiction — the mass of copyright-infringing fiction published online, extending, say, the Star Trek universe — is different only in degree, not in kind, from much of what gets published professionally.
So it’s neither a pejorative nor a particularly surprising statement to say that John Scalzi’s Redshirts is a piece of fan fiction. Specifically, it’s a critique-with-love of some aspects of SF tv series such as Star Trek. The main protagonist, Andrew Dahl, is a newly-appointed crew member on the spaceship Intrepid. He rapidly discovers that events aboard this spaceship tend to take odd turns. Junior crewmembers such as himself are often killed on “away missions,” while the officer class hardly ever suffers the same fate; a magic “Box” can produce solutions to any problem — such as a rampaging virus — just at the point of maximum tension; and officers often “go on about crap you [don’t] need to know,” almost as if they were addressing an invisible audience. The most pressing of these problems is, of course, the first. Dahl soon hears about a crew member called Jenkins who has some theories about what’s really happening, and before long he and others are peering at graphs of mortality aboard the ship and trying to figure out survival strategies. (One of the first, which we’re taught early on, is “Avoid the Narrative”: this book is nothing if not self-aware.
I don’t think it would give the whole picture to describe Redshirts as a satire. To be sure, there are some moments of humor as different registers of story clash with each other. There’s only so much mileage, however, to be gotten from having characters in this sterile Roddenberry future say “fuck.” Similarly, Redshirts mocks some of Star Trek’s odder alien creations, but only incidentally. (About “ice-sharks,” for instance: “‘Is it a shark made of ice?’ Hanson asked. ‘Or a shark that lives in ice?’”) The real heart of Redshirts comes from Dahl and his colleagues try...read more