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Published May 28, 2013

Consider the nameless, numberless dead.

It's easy to forget, playing EVE Online, that your capsuleer is an exceptional creature. You are functionally immortal, with a mind enhanced by technology and a physique bolstered by the finest drugs money can buy. Even a meager amount of isk in your wallet is a fortune compared to the citizens living out their lives on the countless worlds of New Eden. How often do we consider how unique we are as players? How often do we weigh the in-game ramifications of our actions?

Ratting for half an hour destroys dozens of pirate warships, each captained and crewed by tens or hundreds of men and women. Did they believe themselves freedom fighters, and were they happy to die for their cause in a godforsaken anomaly or asteroid belt? EVE's lore tells us thousands, if not millions, of people are displaced or kidnapped by Sansha incursions. But what does it matter to the players if it takes an extra day or two to clear the Mothership site? When you install or destroy a POS, do you alter the balance of power on the world below, causing titanic economic shifts as planetary exports suddenly explode or dry up completely?
 
This contradiction - that the narrative demands the existence of a larger world beyond the plot, but rarely focuses on the particulars - is not unique to EVE. In fact, it's so common in science fiction as to become a joke. When Mon Mothma announced in Return of the Jedi that "many Bothans died to bring us this information," her words became a geek culture punchline, rather than a confrontation of the unseen cost of the narrative.
 
Which brings us at last to Jonathan Scalzi's Redshirts. As you might guess, Redshirts is named for, and inspired by, the red-shirted characters that served as canon fodder in Star Trek. This time, the redshirts are still cannon fodder, but they're given a fighting chance. Placed aboard the Universal Union flagship Intrepid, our heroes are tasked with avoiding the away missions that are certain death to anyone but the ship's highest-ranking officers. Armed with statistics, luck, and no other options, it's do or die from page one. And there is plenty of dying in store.
 
Redshirts is difficult to discuss without spoilers, because it's a novel that's held together by genre awareness and metahumor. Yes, that's right - despite my melancholic introduction, Redshirts is a comedy, and a good one at that. Star Trek has always proved fertile ground for parody (Scalzi owes something to the film Galaxy Quest in particular), but if your Star Trek knowledge is spotty, don't worry. While there are a number of jokes and references that might cater to die-hard fans, Scalzi paints his parody with a broad brush.
 
Suffice it to say that Redshirts pulls out almost every narrative gambit you can name. The deus ex machina, the poorly-timed monologue, invincibility through genre awareness, a MacGuffin; I could go on, but the exercise becomes academic after 300 pages of trope-driven humor. Metafiction offers Scalzi plenty of material to work with and weighty questions to tackle, and he gets to virtually all of them in turn. The real question is, does it actually entertain?

Yes. Although the subject matter Redshirts deals with might lead you to believe that Scalzi would craft a weighty, reflective critique of one of science fiction's most recognizable series, the novel is actually quite lighthearted and frequently comic. Think TV Tropes, rather than JSTOR. The book is a brisk and entertaining read, with pacing and wit reminiscent of the Hitchhiker's Guide or Phule's Company books. I finished it in about eight hours.
 
If there is a weakness of Redshirts I can point to, it's in the uneven characterization. Andrew Dahl, despite being the main character and the eyes through which we experience the narrative, lacks any real character arc. Secondary characters like Lieutenant Kerensky (the Redshirts equivalent of Chekov) get less screen time but a more satisfying sense of growth. Compounding this is a certain lack of distinctiveness in character names; I found myself having to refer on several occasions to the opening chapter where the characters meet, just to make sure I wasn't confusing them.
 
So why did Redshirts put me in a reflective mood and drive me to open the article on what might seem a somber note? Without spoiling too much, Redshirts isn't over once it's over. After the main narrative ends, a trio of epilogues go to work tying up loose ends in the Redshirts universe. These diverge stylistically from the main narrative - with varying degrees of success - and showcase some of the most profound characterization of the entire book. The end message is empowering, which is appropriate for a novel that's all about finding agency when circumstances are conspiring against you. This, to me, is the mark of a good science fiction novel. Redshirts made me laugh, and then it made me think.
Lex Kotose
Lex Kotose is an occasional TEST logistics pilot whose love of EVE aligns nicely with his passion for vertical video game learning curves. When not exploding in space, he is usually dying in Nethack or tantrum spiraling in Dwarf Fortress.
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Tor Books
Price: $11.57