Hollywood Epistemology: John Scalzi's "Redshirts"

July 23, 2012   •   By Graham Sleight

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 trying to figure out the rules of the universe they’re in and how they can survive in it.

There is something very Heinleinian about this work of figuring out. Smart, engaged, snarky people have a problem put in front of them that they tackle by the application of rationality and their never-ending competitive chatter. (Redshirts is a very talky novel, which does make me wish that Scalzi could get out of the habit of appending “Dahl said” or “Kerensky said” to almost every line of dialogue; his characters are distinct enough not to need this cueing.) Where this book differs from Heinlein is that the universe is absurd—or rather, it only makes sense if you assume that what matters is only what happens to the officers when they go on adventures. This is, of course, pure Hollywood epistemology: things are only real to the extent that they affect the protagonists. (And one remembers the similar, more terrible epistemology of late Heinlein novels: things are only real to the extent that Robert A. Heinlein cares about them.) Everything else is set-dressing. The life of a character like Dahl needs to seem real only to the extent that a stage-set needs to seem real: the bit that’s visible needs to do a certain job, and who cares if it’s only really made of painted flats?

The problem Scalzi has is how to sustain this premise over the length of a novel. He could, I suppose, have structured it around a series of away missions, each progressively revealing the true silliness. Instead, almost exactly halfway through the narrative, there’s a logical but surprising revelation that powers the rest of the story. It would be unfair to spell out in detail the nature of that revelation, but it sets Dahl and his gang on a path that closely mirrors that of the 1986 film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (if not the best, then certainly the most approachable of the movies in the series). There’s also at least a nod to Harlan Ellison’s episode from the original show, “The City at the Edge of Forever,” and its central argument that no-one is insignificant, no-one should be thought of as not counting.

There are precursors, of course, for a story with this kind of premise. In the first of the book’s three codas, Scalzi names a couple of works, The Purple Rose of Cairo and The Last Action Hero. I’d add Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author and, perhaps more pertinently, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. That comparison points up something important about Redshirts. In the Stoppard, death (or nonexistence) is a permanently terrifying abyss, to be skated round but never truly avoided. Although Redshirts looks as if it’s similarly concerned with death, the tone is far lighter. Rather than feeling driven to the edge of insanity by the constant threat of away-mission fates, Dahl and his colleagues have a way out in the form of their rationality. It may not save them, but it’s better than nothing.

There is, if you want it, a political reading of Redshirts to be had. The book can be read as doing rather more than just applying logic to a tv series that was never intended to carry this kind of burden. There are Redshirts all around the reader — any reader. The person who makes your shoes, who drives your train, who hands you your coffee in Starbucks. How much do you think about these people? They’re just the Redshirts in your life, either literally or figuratively invisible to you. And, very often, they’re the people who get the worst deal in society. So, having empathized with Dahl and his fellow worker-ants in the pages of this book, you might be inclined to think a little more about the Dahls you encounter in real life.

It has to be said, though, that there’s only so much in the text to foreground this reading: Scalzi is not China Mieville, and the shaping anger of Mieville’s books (or indeed, Scalzi’s own superb “Being Poor”) is absent. Scalzi is far more interested in getting an emotional punch out of his story. He does this principally in the three codas that follow the body of the novel, which step outside the frame of the Intrepid to talk, in various ways, about what stories mean to people and how they reflect back onto our lives. The last of the three will seem too sentimental for some, but it worked for me — not least because the various resolutions it brings are carefully set up beforehand.

In the main, the pleasures of Redshirts are pleasures of recognition. If you know Star Trek and the other series from which the book grows, this story is a hand extended for you to shake: Hey, did you ever think that was weird about the Enterprise? So did I! Equally, it’s peculiarly difficult to imagine what someone would make of it if they didn’t know the original texts. One final comparison: Jo Walton’s 2011 novel Among Others is in many ways a very similar book. It describes a difficult adolescence made easier by discovering writers such as Samuel Delany and Ursula Le Guin: like Redshirts, by describing that experience in such loving detail, Walton’s book acts as a kind of validation for those who’ve lived through it. For both books, the risk of spending so much time talking about SF is that the reader may feel the world around those texts matters less. Walton tries to address this by loading biographical intensity into her narrative; Scalzi does most of this heavy lifting in his three codas. But I could never quite buy the blurb of Among Others, which described it as a potential break-out book. It and Redshirts are break-in books.