Consider the nameless, numberless dead.
It's easy to forget, playing EVE Online, that your capsuleer is an exceptional creature. You are functionally immortal, with a mind enhanced by technology and a physique bolstered by the finest drugs money can buy. Even a meager amount of isk in your wallet is a fortune compared to the citizens living out their lives on the countless worlds of New Eden. How often do we consider how unique we are as players? How often do we weigh the in-game ramifications of our actions?
Ratting for half an hour destroys dozens of pirate warships, each captained and crewed by tens or hundreds of men and women. Did they believe themselves freedom fighters, and were they happy to die for their cause in a godforsaken anomaly or asteroid belt? EVE's lore tells us thousands, if not millions, of people are displaced or kidnapped by Sansha incursions. But what does it matter to the players if it takes an extra day or two to clear the Mothership site? When you install or destroy a POS, do you alter the balance of power on the world below, causing titanic economic shifts as planetary exports suddenly explode or dry up completely?
This contradiction - that the narrative demands the existence of a larger world beyond the plot, but rarely focuses on the particulars - is not unique to EVE. In fact, it's so common in science fiction as to become a joke. When Mon Mothma announced in Return of the Jedi that "many Bothans died to bring us this information," her words became a geek culture punchline, rather than a confrontation of the unseen cost of the narrative.
Which brings us at last to Jonathan Scalzi's Redshirts. As you might guess, Redshirts is named for, and inspired by, the red-shirted characters that served as canon fodder in Star Trek. This time, the redshirts are still cannon fodder, but they're given a fighting chance. Placed aboard the Universal Union flagship Intrepid, our heroes are tasked with avoiding the away missions that are certain death to anyone but the ship's highest-ranking officers. Armed with statistics, luck, and no other options, it's do or die from page one. And there is plenty of dying in store.
is difficult to discuss without spoilers, because it's a novel that's held together by genre awareness and metahumor. Yes, that's right - despite my melancholic introduction, Redshirts
is a comedy, and a good one at that. Star Trek
has always proved fertile ground for parody (Scalzi owes something to the film Galaxy Quest
in particular), but if your Star Trek
knowledge is spotty, don't worry. While there are a number of jokes and references that might cater to die-hard fans, Scalzi paints his parody with a broad brush.
Suffice it to say that Redshirts pulls out almost every narrative gambit you can name. The deus ex machina, the poorly-timed monologue, invincibility through genre awareness, a MacGuffin; I could go on, but the exercise becomes academic after 300 pages of trope-driven humor. Metafiction offers Scalzi plenty of material to work with and weighty questions to tackle, and he gets to virtually all of them in turn. The real question is, does it actually entertain?
Yes. Although the subject matter Redshirts deals with might lead you to believe that Scalzi would craft a weighty, reflective critique of one of science fiction's most recognizable series, the novel is actually quite lighthearted and frequently comic. Think TV Tropes, rather than JSTOR. The book is a brisk and entertaining read, with pacing and wit reminiscent of the Hitchhiker's Guide or Phule's Company books. I finished it in about eight hours.