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Stranger Than Science Fiction

Borgovian Land Worms, Longranian Ice Sharks, deadly Moravian Plague, killer robots with harpoons, pulse gun vaporization, shuttle door malfunction, falling rocks, irresponsible wordsmiths. The list goes on. And these are light years away from the greatest dangers John Scalzi’s poor characters must face while exploring the vastness of the endlessly hazardous Universe on a gigantic spaceship with a yearly death rate higher that in Hot Shots! Part Deux. Well, life in literary fiction is not fair. Though Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas is instead wildly imaginative, laugh-out-loud science-fiction-adventure-satire-meta-narrative.

Jeez… where to start? Scalzi’s novel is, after all, a lightweight sci-fi romp that’s metafictional towards its own universe and the science fiction genre as a whole, and at the same time it’s an inspired attempt at commenting literary and visual storytelling as such. But that’s just the half of it as it ultimately becomes a surprisingly poignant rumination on the way we create and consume works of fiction. That’s right, for all of the fun it provides Redshirts is not simply yet another new-ensigns-doing-dangerous-missions-on-distant-planets sort of a novel. It’s far more unorthodox. However, this is not the main reason for this post, so let’s actually start from the middle.

One of the thoughts that kept rushing through my head while reading Redshirts was: why, in the name of whatever or whoever you feel fits best in this spot, this novel still hasn’t been adapted for the screen?

Charismatic, not overly complex characters with enough of personality to be relatable. Dozens of witty repartees and sarcastic one-liners. Cool and unpredictable cliffhangers. Exciting adventures at the end of the known universe. Keeping the reader/viewer engaged in guessing the narrative twists and turns. It starts as an exciting, Star Trek-like space adventure, then switches into a detective story, and finally reorganizes itself as a full-on meta take on everything that came before. Aside from the last part, which would demand some creativity in adapting, this is everything that a summer (or any other season’s) TV or streaming hit really needs to gather a fan base.

I mean, it’s even written in a way that it’s almost a ready-made script for a miniseries, at least as far as the dialogues go (the plot would have to be tweaked a bit, even if only for budgetary reasons). Scalzi uses his dry sense of humor and darkly comic imagination to the effect that you can actually picture the protagonists (five new Ensigns trying to stay alive aboard a spaceship with a reputation for having new Ensigns being accidentally killed on each away mission) as actors playing off of each other. A good case in point is the novel’s prologue: two overly excited, low-rank crew members are literally massacred by Borgovian Land Worms; all the while their commanding officers comment on it from the top of a large, and perfectly safe, boulder. Tragic, right? Indeed, but it’s presented in a way that you just can’t help but laugh. And imagine a scene with actors saying those lines with subterranean creatures (surely CGI, though practical effects would be much cooler) going berserk beneath them.

Or, the part in which the terrified protagonists looking for answers try to outsmart a smart and reclusive ex-scientist, who looks like Yeti on the loose and hides away in the depths of the spaceship’s cargo tunnels, because he may be the only one who will explain them what is really going on. The location is perfect for a cat-and-mouse kind of sequence, with some soaring, over-the-top music accentuating the silly madness of the whole thing, while Scalzi’s snappy dialogues get the job done in terms of comedic timing. I’d even say that this might work better on-screen because the ‘sequence’ – as, honestly, many parts of the novel – seems to be more cinematic than literary. Which can be, and apparently is, irritating for some readers, but it can also be an enormous advantage.

Considering the fact that Scalzi was a creative consultant for Stargate Universe TV series, I’m sure he would be perfectly capable of adapting his own novel to use its full potential, or at least leading a team of screenwriters tasked with doing so. The key decision would be, however, to hire a passionate director(s) with prowess in visual comedy. Say, Edgar Wright, whose comedic mastery is matched only by his talent for dealing with absurdity and genre-bending storytelling (below’s a proof, if you need one). When I imagine Wright doing a scene with a bunch of serious scientists explaining the workings of an enigmatic machine, called ‘The Box,’ that looks and behaves like a big microwave but can perhaps solve every problem in the Universe (though no one really knows what it is, how it got there, or whether it really works), I begin to smile involuntarily. The imaginative framing, the clever cutting, the comedic panache. These are all Wright’s fields of expertise.

Edgar Wright – How to Do Visual Comedy from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

Furthermore, the Redshirts’ satire-meta-narrative part, with its surprising poignancy as well as some brilliant questions about the storytellers’ responsibilities, should be the stuff that the ‘Golden Age of Television’ showrunners’ and screenwriters’ dreams are made of. Multilayered – that’s the word. One can enjoy only the first layer, the cleverly structured space romp filled with witty jokes and sci-fi in-jokes, and be perfectly content about it, but there’s also great richness beneath.

The truth is, there was a huge interest in Redshirts after its initial success in 2012 and 2013, and – as John Scalzi narrated on his blog Whatever – a deal was made with FX channel (a really good fit for this particular story). Scalzi was to be an executive producer and consultant on a limited series based on his novel, whereas Ken Kwapis, among others, would assume directing duties (not as great as Wright but still a guy who understands visual comedy). However, this was almost three years ago and while it’s quite possible someone is still working on it, the more likely explanation is that the project is in development hell and will not be resuscitated before another Scalzi novel becomes hugely popular. Or am I too negative about it?

Now, let’s go back and start from the beginning. Before Redshirts, I’d never read anything by John Scalzi. I didn’t know his style or sense of humor. I didn’t read any reviews written by his supporters or opponents. I had no idea that he had been writing Whatever blog for almost two decades. I decided to give Redshirts a try, remembering it had won Hugo and Locus SF awards for 2013, and besides, I needed some time off from hard sf after finishing Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. And I must say I was pleasantly surprised with Scalzi’s singular voice and imagination, if not entirely convinced the author reached the full potential of his own ideas in the second part of the novel. The surprise was even bigger because I approached Redshirts after accidentally reading on-line that it’s “a geek-only novel” and getting to know the narrative twist that occurs after one-third of the book’s length and basically changes everything.

The front cover of John Scalzi's "Redshirts"

“Redshirts” by John Scalzi, front cover

This actually means two things:
a) I may not be the best person to write about Redshirts, as one of the main arguments against the novel is that it can be really appreciated only by true sci-fi geeks, who I’m not.
b) I feel I must mention this narrative twist in the next passage because it has much to do with another reason I feel this novel should be remade as a serialized entertainment. So, if you want to approach John Scalzi’s Hugo-winning novel spoiler-free, you should stop reading at this point.

But, well, whatever.

Redshirts is set in the 25th century and it tells a story of five new crew members on the Universal Union’s flagship ‘Intrepid,’ who discover that the ship they serve on is, for reasons unknown, being taken over by the Narrative of a poorly written 21st century TV show, itself a poor rip-off of Star Trek. The show’s producer and lead screenwriter create the drama and the tension by means of ridiculous ‘accidental’ killings of low-rank crew members that assist five commanding officers on numerous semi-serious missions. In the TV series’ reality, the extras show up and die before the cameras, then have lunch, take their paychecks and leave; in the protagonists’ world, people get massacred for real. Quite a meta-concept, right? And, trust me, it’s fun to follow even if you know the twist to come. Besides, after resolving the mystery Scalzi goes even further and sends his ‘expendable’ protagonists to travel desperately back in time in order to locate and convince the screenwriter and the producer of the show to end it. This is, as you might imagine, only the tip of the iceberg of meta, or even meta-meta, jokes, Star Trek in-jokes, popular sf genre tropes, etc.
(Thus, it would make the our-reality TV series triple-meta thing, or an entirely different beast altogether, which is such a cool and eccentric idea that it needs to be done!)

So, yes, Redshirts is probably a book straight out of geek heaven. But to call it a geek-only novel is like saying James Cameron’s Titanic was about a gigantic sinking ship.

I’m not a Trekkie but a Star Wars fan with no intentions of deciphering dozens of Redshirts’ in-jokes, and yet I did get a good laugh while reading it, as well as a neat feeling of being intellectually teased by a number of Scalzi’s themes. Especially by the novel’s existential streak. It may not be as subtle as the author intended but didn’t we all feel at some point(s) that we live in a poor play/drama/movie written by some hack writer/playwright/screenwriter with head full of clichés instead of imagination? I know I did. Still do, actually. It can also be quite a nice metaphor for all the stupid things being done throughout the world by stupid, envious, hateful, narrow-minded people with money and power instead of empathy and imagination. Their actions really do affect our lives, indirectly, but still; the predominant human narrative is to divide people into stars, supporting characters, bit players and extras, with producers, directors and screenwriters quite often being – to use a euphemism – ill-suited for the job.

Redshirts before going on an away mission in "Star Trek"

Original “redshirts,” still from “Star Trek”

Redshirts is also a clever and pointed satire on the entertainment industry. You know, the one that produces such quantities of crappy entertainment that it got people hooked on it simply because some of those creations are not that bad in comparison with the universally loathed ones (guilty pleasures put aside). What’s actually worse, this ‘trend’ makes it almost impossible for really good films and series to get through. Because they are more complex. Because they are not escapist enough. Because nobody dies and characters tend to value talking more than running and screaming.
(That is not to say I don’t like some of these films and shows; I do, it’s just that they cannot be the only thing you watch or think about.)

I’m still on the fence about the overall quality of Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas. It is a book intended to be, above all, a fun ride. There are no complex characters (one could even say that all five protagonists speak in a very similar manner). No one ponders on moral dilemmas for more than a couple of moments. And at times it’s so meta (i.e. Scalzi going meta on himself as the writer of Redshirts as a meta novel) that it’s becoming too clever for its own good. But even if it’s not a science fiction masterpiece, it made me think about things I usually don’t think about, ask questions that lead me to quite fascinating answers, made me appreciate things I quite often neglect to notice. And provided actual fun. If I am to choose between a work of art that is perfect in every manner but does not leave me with any emotions to feel or problems to consider, and one that is far from perfect but makes me go outside of my comfort zone, I will always choose the latter.

Quite a book this Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, I’ll tell you that. If you haven’t read it but you’ve come this far, maybe you should give it a try. If you did read it, please, share your opinion in the comments section. I have to warn you, though – unless it’s a comment like ‘You suck’ or ‘Only an idiot could write this crap,’ I will reply.

And here’s hoping the Redshirts miniseries will eventually happen!

Redshirts on an away mission, waiting for something to kill them..

Poor redshirts, still from “Star Trek”

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