Secondary Characters, Narrative and Comedy – Review of Redshirts by John Scalzi

This week, Redshirts is:

  • A fun romp through the Universal Union
  • Sneakily asking ethical questions
  • Much more meta than I anticipated


Ensign Andrew Dahl is assigned to the Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union.  He’s pleased to have earned such a prestigious position, until he gets on board and realises things aren’t quite as they should be.

Dahl, along with fellow newbies, Maia Duvall, Jimmy Hanson, Hester and Finn, must navigate the strange new world of the Intrepid.  And the literal strange new worlds they land on periodically on Away Missions…

It seems that there is a fatality on every Away Mission and nobody is held accountable for these.  Not only that, but the officers always survive these encounters, no matter what the statistical likelihood of that is.  Dahl believes there is more going on than meets the eye, but he needs to find proof before anyone will believe him.

This is a story about a ‘Redshirt’ on a spaceship, trying to work out why his fellow ‘Redshirts’ are dropping like flies, all while trying to avoid the same fate.

How much do you need to know before you start reading?

I am one of those people who has watched a lot of episodes of Star Trek but hasn’t sat down to watch them all in order and I certainly don’t remember all the details of it.

I managed to keep up with the story of Redshirts just fine.

The narrative seems to assume readers will know what it is talking about and doesn’t dwell too much on the details.  Service tunnels used by the maintenance machines and conveniently a great place to hide?  Sure, we know what those are.

There are several references to other popular culture Science Fiction, which are amusing if you get them.  I am thinking of the nod to Galaxy Quest, in particular – getting the reference made it twice as funny but it wasn’t necessary.  It would still have been funny.

I am convinced that, for every intertextual reference I saw, there was at least one I didn’t get, and that’s fine – I didn’t notice.  It didn’t interrupt the flow of the story and I didn’t feel like I was ever missing information.  It’s just a little something extra for the Sci-Fi geeks.


What makes this good is that the worldbuilding is deliberately derivative.  It’s meant to be a cardboard cut-out of a number of other space opera shows.

It gives us just enough to know what is happening and where we are, but there is no attempt to fill in back-story or explain how things came to be that way.  Actually, that is something of a relief because it meant there was absolutely no worldbuilding info-dump.

In fact, the narrative skips along at a very fast pace, barely spending any time describing some of the more bizarre things, mostly because they are bizarre and they don’t make sense.  It’s about the impression created, and the consequences, rather than the hard science of it.


There are three codas at the end of the novel which give additional information.  They add depth to the story, rounding it off in an interesting way. 

The story itself is complete, but because of the meta concepts involved and the large cast, having three codas focusing on a few of the secondary characters is really interesting.

I love the first coda.  It is hilarious.  It also explored the ramifications of the main plot on secondary characters (kind of like the whole main plot of the book was doing – coincidence?  I think not).  Although the story was complete, when I began to listen to the first coda, I realised that I really did need this.

Rarely have I been so satisfied with the ending of a book.


I listened to this on audible and enjoyed it.

Whoever chose Wil Wheaton to be the audiobook narrator has a sense of humour.

Having said that, I found – like a lot of people, if the reviews are anything to go by – the repeated use of ‘he said’ at the end of almost every piece of dialogue to be distracting.

Reading that in text, your eyes would skip over those dialogue tags and you wouldn’t register them.  Especially because they were nice, solid ‘saids’ instead of anything fancy that would draw attention to themselves.  It feels unfair to comment on it, since I am sure that in reading it, I wouldn’t have noticed.  However, since I listened to it, and the narrator read them all out, it did become noticeable.

Interestingly, I seem to remember John Scalzi commenting that he has adapted his writing style to take audio narration into consideration.

Ok, I looked it up, and here is the tweet I remember:

It reads:

“I was fine with pretty much only using “said” until my books got turned into audiobooks.  Then it REALLY stood out, and not in a good way.  Now I use fewer dialogue tags in general, and mix them up a bit more.”

I respect the heck out of a writer who adapts and hones their craft according to their experiences and the medium.  Scalzi shows that he wants the reader/audience to enjoy his book and he has grown as a writer to make sure that happens.

I have some thoughts about why your English teacher didn’t want you to write ‘said’ which you can read here.

What I thought of Redshirts

I have to say, I wasn’t expecting it to go in the direction that it did, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

There were a lot of characters and I did worry that I wouldn’t remember who they all were, but I think I was always aware of who was doing what.  That is quite the skill Scalzi has there, to make sure that the reader has an impression of a large cast and yet doesn’t worry about forgetting minor characters.

I liked the fact that the story followed the small group of Ensigns, the lowly Redshirts on the Intrepid.  Not only were they low-ranking, but they were also new to the ship and so weren’t established as part of the crew.  Perfect canon-fodder, in fact.

And yet the whole story was about them.

We get to know them, their histories and their personalities, while they investigate the mystery of the high fatality rate on Away Missions.

Ironically, the five ‘main characters’ – the officers on the Bridge – are vague and unformed, since they are only background to the protagonists’ struggles.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book.  I found myself chuckling over and over again.  It was incredibly imaginative and I don’t want to go into the details too much and give away the twists but I will say it was a surprise and yet so inevitable that I can’t believe I didn’t see it coming.

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