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15 August 2014 @ 08:44 pm
Redshirts by John Scalzi  
A good book. However, although I'm not surprised it won a Hugo, I'm sort of a little disappointed because I didn't feel it was that good a book. In fact, of the two Scalzi's I've read, I would say that I think Old Man's War is better.

The more I think about it, the more I feel Redshirts reads like fan fiction. It isn't fanfic, obviously, but its central premise is that the protagonists' lives are linked to those of "red shirt" bit parts in a "not very good" TV science fiction show. If the show existed this would be one of those classic "cracky" pieces of writing in which first the background characters are fleshed out a bit, and then they realise they are in a TV show, and then they finally fix the problem. After the main story there are three codas which play similar meta-type games and which are written in first, second and third person respectively, which doesn't (esp. the second person bit) do anything to reduce the feeling one is reading fanfic.

That said it is good cracky fanfic. The jokes are funny. You do actually care about the central protagonist. You want to know what happens. The construction is mostly pretty clever and well thought out (though I was unconvinced by the in world explanation for the fix that finally resolved the situation). It is genuinely thoughtful and poignant in places, in spite of the jokes. On the other hand the bit parts themselves, with the exception of the central point of view character, are actually pretty sketchily drawn - in fact the central character even hints at this at the end. This suggests this is deliberate but, even so, writing thin characters for 222 pages just to point out the obvious fact that redshirts in TV shows don't have much characterisation doesn't seem that clever to me. I was also struck by the fact that our group of redshirts contains only one woman who's role is to sleep with a convenient officer character so that, at an appropriate moment, they can kidnap him. I actually googled that one because Scalzi has made something of a name for himself in recent years championing social justice and working hard to improve the treatment of female writers, in particular, within the SF field. So I learn that the fact that the one woman in our little team of redshirts is a walking somewhat offensive cliche is, apparently, entirely deliberate. Again I'm unconvinced that writing your female character as an offensive cliche in order to point out that women are represented by offensive cliches in bad SF shows is really worth doing.

It's also possible, given the games the story is playing that the point is not that bit part characters (especially women) are badly written in bad SF shows, but that non-point-of-view major characters (especially women) are written badly in bad SF novels.

As I say I'm not surprised it won the Hugo. Scalzi has a very high profile online presence and is cheerfully self-publicising. Moreover, if you're not familiar with the kind of meta-fictional games this book is playing (which are, I suspect, more common in fan fiction than elsewhere) then I can imagine the premise is startling and original, and there is no denying that it is mostly extremely well executed. Redshirts could easily have been a one-joke novel but it's never content to simply rest on its central idea. The dialogue which drives most of the novel is consistently witty and often clever. I just have a suspicion, I suppose, that Scalzi wrote better stuff when he was less famous.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/123853.html.