Galaxy Quest meets Stranger than Fiction. That’s the best way I can describe this intriguing book by a man who comes as close to sci-fi royalty as it gets these days: John Scalzi. And much as I hate to admit it, Redshirts is the first book of his that I’ve actually read. (What can I say? I’m typically more of a fantasy kind of a guy–particularly of the YA variety.) But I heard the premise: a bunch of stock characters in a real life version of Star Trek start to discover they’re . . . a bunch of stock characters, good for nothing but getting killed off to increase the dramatic tension. And how could I resist that?
Answer: I couldn’t.
I read the book in about two days. And I really enjoyed parts of it. Most of it. But some of it just didn’t sit well with me. And much as I’m usually reluctant to openly critique the books of fellow writers, I’m going to make an exception in this case for two reasons. First: it’s John Scalzi, and he can take it. Second, I really enjoyed the book, so it’s not like I’m tearing down.
Like I said, it’s a fast read. As far as the book-for-book’s sake goes, it’s a fun read, too. The meta story got a bit carried away now and then for my tastes, but that’s a matter of taste. (I don’t want to go into details too much here, because me no likey spoilers, but let’s just say there got to be one or two too many layers.) The book also succeeds at making you think differently about literature and genre in general, and I really appreciated that.
So what inspired me to write a post longer than “This is a good book”?
That’s right, folks. I’m a prude. The book drops a few f-bombs here and there, and I get all uppity. But before you start calling me a Puritan and asking if I saw Goody Osburn with the devil, allow me to explain.
I’ve got nothing against harsh language. People use it. People other than me, typically, but it’s a well known fact that f-words are dropped on a regular basis across the country. Certainly across my campus. So why should I object to having them in a book?
To be honest, I normally wouldn’t. Some of my favorite movies and books are peppered with saltiness, and that doesn’t turn me off. But the saltiness matches the book or the movie. It fits the subject material. (And I realize that now that I’m saying this, the other half of the people out there–the half that didn’t call me Puritan to begin with–is now getting ready to hurl some “Heathen!” comments my way. What can I say? I like to irritate everybody equally.)
Let me take Galaxy Quest as an example. The movie’s an absolute blast. It’s a send up of Star Trek in much the same way that Redshirts is. It’s flat out hilarious, and one of the best Star Trek movies out there–maybe *the* best, but I won’t make that statement, because there’s only so much controversy one book review can handle.
What would Galaxy Quest be like with the addition of five or ten f-bombs?
I argue it would be a worse movie. It would alienate (no pun intended) a good number of potential fans, limit the audience, and for what in return? Grittiness? Realism? It’s a sci-fi sendup. Realism and grittiness aren’t necessary. At all. And the same holds true for Redshirts. Yes, I suppose by adding in a few four letter words, Scalzi uses a short cut to say “These people are real. They swear just like you and me.” But I don’t think that short cut is necessary. The characters are well-written as is.
This isn’t an adult book. This is a book that would work just fine for all ages. (Although, yes–there is that meta thing that goes on, which might be over the head of a few age groups, potentially.) There are a sizable number of adults in the world who have no desire to read profanity when they don’t want to, but who would love to experience the wonders of Redshirts. I wish I could whole-heartedly endorse the book for them, but I can’t.
And Scalzi no doubt knows this, and is fine with this. And when I write, I make the same decision a lot of the time–what to include. How “real” to make the material. How violent? What sort of language? Sexual tension? And no doubt some of my decisions cross the line for other people out there. It’s just not often that I find myself on the other side of the line, saying “It was good, but . . .” and having to hem and haw about language. It’s helpful for me to remember what that feels like.
And in this case, it feels like the book reached too far. Like it stepped over that line for kicks and giggles, and it got nothing in return. But that’s just my two cents.
Four out of five stars. Recommended for everybody, but watch out for some language.