What if your only purpose in life was to serve as an expendable target? Not only that, what if the only reason that you were alive was to die on a bad sci-fi TV show? That’s the question asked in the darkly comical book Redshirts by John Scalzi, for this month’s Skepchick Book Club.
The premise of the book is that crewmembers on a starship (whose primary mission is exploration) start noticing an effect when they go on away missions: the missions are dangerous for everyone, and at least one crew member has to die, but bridge officers will always be saved by a last-minute miracle. And it’s not that the away missions themselves are inherently dangerous–it’s that something always goes wrong.
One crew member, Jenkins, who has stayed alive by hiding in the ship, has compiled charts and made notes about all the weird things that happen on the ship, and came to the conclusion that their reality is actually a science-fiction show, and the worst part is it’s not even a good one. Here are some of the observations he noted:
- The intertial dampeners on the ship work well enough for space travel, but somehow they seem to go offline during any crisis situation
- Decks 6-12 will almost always sustain damages during an attack because these are the decks the show has sets for
- Every battle is designed for maximum drama and people stop thinking logically and start thinking dramatically
- There is always a meaningful pause before going to commercial
- In this crew, there are extras and there are glorified extras. The average extra just gets killed, but the glorified extra gets a backstory and then they get killed so that the audience feels like a real person is dying.
The so-called glorified extras decide that they need to figure out a way to get off of this show, and so they kidnap one of the bridge officers and take the shuttle to the nearest black hole, so that they can travel back in time and stop the writers before they kill off any more characters. The only reason they kidnap a bridge officer is because they know if they do, the show’s drama physics will be in play and the wormhole will function as a time-travel device. Otherwise, they would just get spaghetti-fied.
(Don’t worry, there’s more surprises in the plot that I haven’t revealed.)
Overall, I enjoyed this book, because it was a fun summer read. Plus, I’m a huge Trek fan and this is a fresh take on the redshirt trope. There was one section that I especially enjoyed, and it’s the sequence involving The Box (the mysterious plot device that fixes everything before the show is over). Basically, a bridge officer (Karensky) gets sick with a flesh-melting plague, and Ensign Dahl is given the task of finding a counter-bacterial (or as everyone asks, “wait, don’t you mean a vaccine??”) in six hours. Dahl runs to the lab to get the “counter-bacterial” and is stressing about how to develop such a thing in six hours (when normally it would take weeks). Then Collins pulls out The Box and this exchange happens:
Dahl walked over and examined it, opening it and looking inside. “It looks like a microwave oven,” he said.
“It’s not,” Collins said, taking the vial and bringing it to Dahl.
“What is it, then?” Dahl asked, looking at Collins.
“It’s the Box,” Collins said.
“That’s it? The Box?” Dahl said.
“If it makes you feel better to think it’s an experimental quantum-based computer with advanced inductive artificial intelligence capacity, whose design comes to us from an advanced by extinct race of warrior-engineers, then you can think about it that way,” Collins said.
So they put the vial in, and sure enough, in 5.5 hours, the Box gives off a *ding* and the counter-bacterial is ready. Except there’s one thing left to do: make the bridge officers feel useful by leaving something wrong in the documentation for them to find and fix. And even though Dahl thinks that sounds like a ridiculous thing to do, he does it and it works. He gets the counter-bacterial to Kerensky right before his organs start melting and everything goes back to the way it should be. (In my experience in the corporate world, maybe I found this to be more like more real life than fiction.)
Next Month’s Book:
Shrill:Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West. I just heard her segment on This American Life, and she is one of my favorite writers anyway, so I couldn’t pass up this book. Our next date will be Sunday, July 31st (Saturday is when we have the in-person club in Boston).