Mar 17, 2017

Set phasers to fun: John Scalzi boldly goes where no Trekkie has gone before, with 'Redshirts'

'Redshirts' a fine spoof, a loving tribute to the genre. It's a meta-fictional reinterpretation of TOS. And you can read it even if you’re not a Star Trek fan.

BYGautham Shenoy

The expendables. The walking dead. No, I’m not talking about the action movie or the zombie TV series, but phrases used to describe the crew members of the Starfleet’s starship USS Enterprise in Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS), more specifically the ones wearing the red uniform. Take a look at this meme:

And the explanation is simple: If a red-shirted crew member of the Enterprise is sent on an away mission, chances are he will not come back alive. Because you see, the only reason these people exist is to die, their sole purpose is to get killed by the episode’s villain, or vapourised, or eaten by a hungry plant, or stabbed, or crushed under a random falling rock. And it’s such an oft-used trope in TOS that it has its own name in the sci-fi world: Redshirts, to refer to a stock character or a random extra who is introduced only to be killed just as swiftly by the writers to heighten the sense of drama and peril, yet leave the main cast unharmed.
Pro tip: If you ever get into Starfleet Academy and are assigned to a starship, avoid any department that requires you to wear a red shirt. And the numbers back this advice. The founder of SiteLogic, and Trekkie (for that’s what Star Trek fans are called) Matt Bailey crunched the numbers and found that out of the 13.7% of Captain Kirk’s crew who died during their three-year mission, a whopping 74% were Redshirts. Other Trekkies have also run the numbers, to infer that you are almost 62% more likely to die in a red shirt if you’re in the security department as opposed to comms or engineering. Basically, Redshirts are — literally — a dying breed.

Trekkie Matt Bailey crunched the numbers and found that out of the 13.7% of Captain Kirk’s crew who died during their three-year mission, a whopping 74% were Redshirts  

Redshirts, as a trope, have over the years transcended sci-fi to enter pop culture, with references to them in shows and movies that aren’t SF/F. The inter-webs is full of them. Here are just three references to the Redshirts from other creators: a joke from Family Guy, and two comic strips, Gary Larson’s hilarious Far Side and Bill Amend’s popular strip, FoxTrot.
Captain Kirk: All right, men, this is a dangerous mission. And it’s likely one of us will be killed. The landing party will consist of myself, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Ensign Ricky.
Ensign Ricky: Aw, crap!
Left: A strip from Far Side. The caption reads, ‘Ensign Johnson suddenly comes to the alarming realisation that he is the only red-shirt in the landing party’. Right: A strip from FoxTrot

Over the years, Redshirts have been so much fodder for memes and funny reinterpretations, including this personal favourite of mine, that ties together both the Redshirts’ manifest destiny to die and George R R Martin’s manifest propensity to kill his characters:

Now, what if… what if these Redshirts were to compare notes and stumble upon what is really going on? To realise that they’re dying of the most flimsiest of causes while the senior officers, like the starship’s dashing adventurer Captain, the logical Chief Science Officer and the handsome doctor seem to be practically invincible, indestructible and maybe immortal?!
And that’s where the author of Old Man’s War, John Scalzi’s Redshirts begins, or to refer to it by its original title, Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas.
Left: The book itself. Right: John Scalzi (in black suit) with the Best Novel Hugo Award he won in 2013 for Redshirts, with other winners for that year, Pat Cadigan (best novelette), and Brandon Sanderson (best novella).

Set in the 25th century, Redshirts follows the adventures of five new recruits on the UUCS Intrepid — the flagship of the Universal Union — come to realise that the ship’s crew members are dying at an alarming rate. Leading this group is young Ensign Andrew Dahl, who then stumbles upon information that leads to a mind-bending meta-discovery about how an “intrusion” on their reality has warped it, and why people like him are simply, so to speak, alien fodder.
And since the book’s tagline is, “They were expendable, until they started comparing notes,” here’s a small extract about how they first start to put two and two together by comparing notes:
“So, did you guys get asked about away teams?” Duvall asked, as she brought her mess tray to the table where Dahl and Hanson were already sitting.
“I did,” Hanson said.
“So did I,” Dahl said.
“Is it just me, or does everyone on this ship seem a little weird about them?” Duvall asked.
“Give me an example,” Dahl said.
“I mean that within five minutes of getting to my new post I heard three different stories of crew buying the farm on an away mission. Death by falling rock. Death by toxic atmosphere. Death by pulse gun vaporization.”
“Death by shuttle door malfunction,” Hanson said.
“Death by ice shark,” Dahl said.
“Death by what?” Duvall said, blinking. “What the hell is an ice shark?”
“You got me,” Dahl said. “I had no idea there was such a thing.”
Is Redshirts a fine spoof and a loving tribute to the genre? Is it a nod to classic space opera? It a meta-fictional reinterpretation of sci-fi tv series, especially TOS? Can you read it even if you’re not a Star Trek fan? Yes, yes, yes and yes. And yes, while it’s a fun, breezy and easy read for anyone who likes a funny novel, it’s a must-read for any self-respecting Start Trek fan, especially connoisseurs of TOS and those whose first instinct on seeing a death in any Star Trek episode or movie is to go, “He’s dead, Jim!”
But if you think this is just another sci-fi book not worth bothering with, that this writer is trying to get you to read, think again (Full disclosure: I’m a Trekkie). Redshirts won the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Novel, ahead of books by SFF giants such as Kim Stanley Robinson and Lois McMaster Bujold, as also the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Book for that year, and made it to many Top 10 lists of that year. An achievement that’s made more commendable by the fact that this was not a sci-fi novel that was all-serious, but one that was born out of a bold decision to make it more humour than anything else (you could shelve it, and quite easily that too, in the “humour” section), a feat not pulled off successfully since Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Is Redshirts a fine spoof and a loving tribute to the genre? Is it a nod to classic space opera? It a meta-fictional reinterpretation of sci-fi tv series, especially TOS? Can you read it even if you’re not a Star Trek fan? Yes, yes, yes and yes  

To quote Joe Hill — Stephen King’s son by the way and an accomplished author in his own right — from the blurb of the book, “Redshirts is (a) ruin-your-underwear funny, (b) a mind-bender sure to Philip K Dick you over, and (c) absurdly right in ideas and feelings. John Scalzi sets his imagination to stun and scores a direct hit. Read on and prosper.”
The main story by itself clocks in at only about 230 breezy pages. But this is a novel with ‘three codas’ remember? And these three codas are three short stories that come after the novel, and act as epilogues, shedding more light on the world and the characters of Redshirts. The main story is complete in itself, and offer full satisfaction in terms of narrative and conclusion, but to quote John Scalzi, “The three stories at the end aren’t throwaway bits; the three stories at the end matter.” Which helps take the book up to 315 pages. Of awesomeness.
Such awesomeness that, after a long time, we’re going to have back-to-back contests, since we had one last week as well.
Speaking of which, here’s the names of the two winners who each win a copy of Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light for their SFnal take on gods, religion, and their mechanisms: Jithamithra G Raghavendrachar and Shailen Kumar Dalbehera. Congratulations guys! Do get in touch with us with your contact details and your postal address, so you can start reading the book you’ve won at the earliest.
And on that happy and winning note, here’s this week’s contest whose winner will get a copy of John Scalzi’s Redshirts, and it’s a simple one. Take a look at this image below of Captain James T Kirk speaking to a bunch of redshirts.

Just tell us what Capt Kirk could be telling them — in not more than two sentences — given that you know what’s going to happen to them soon, and what they’re really there for. Make it funny! And keep it original. Submit your entries — you can submit more than one — in the comments section below, or tweet them to us with #NWWonFD or leave a comment on the FactorDaily Facebook page, by Thursday, March 23. All the best!
I’ll see you next Friday, as always, with another edition of New Worlds Weekly. Live Long and Prosper! (said no one ever to a Redshirt).

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Gautham Shenoy is a writer of FactorDaily.