From atop a large boulder in a dark cave on the planet Borgovia, Ensign Tom Davis surveys his situation, his gaze trained on the sandy surface of the cave floor, beneath which deadly Borgovian land worms swarm expectantly, having just snacked on Ensign Chen, Davis' colleague and the other member of the security detail for the Borgovian Away Team. Captain Abernathy, Science Office Q'eeng, and Chief Engineer Paul West perch precariously on a second boulder, but Davis, an ensign – a red shirt - on the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, has no doubt that the next course on the Borgovian land worm menu is him.
John Scalzi’s Redshirts is classical geek literature, a big Trekkie nerdfest based upon the high mortality rate experienced by those red-shirted crew members who were unfortunate enough to accompany Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty on planetary landing parties. Those four couldn’t die; they’re featured characters! So in order to create the sense of real danger, the sense that, well, maybe they could die, Gene Roddenberry and Company would always throw a red-shirted crewmate to the dragon people, the lava monsters, or the city of creepily-possessed children. As the virgin sacrifices of 1960s science fictional TV, you’d think they’d start to catch on, perhaps realizing that it was always one of their cohorts who were missing when the landing party returned to the U.S.S. Enterprise.
And that, of course, is where John Scalzi comes in.
The action in Redshirts follows Andy Dahl and three of his colleagues, all new ensigns aboard the Intrepid. It quickly becomes apparent to Dahl that something is amiss aboard, what with all the low level, crimson-clad crew members always dying on the away missions, so much so that the established crew view away missions as death sentences and have created elaborate routines in order to avoid being selected. Dahl and his cohorts become wise to the situation, and they set out to do something that their Star Trek doppelgangers never did – save their own lives.
"So, did you guys get asked about away teams?" Duvall asked, as she brought her mess tray to the table where Dahl and Hanson were already sitting.
"I did," Hanson said.
"So did I," Dahl said.
"Is it just me, or does everyone on this ship seem a little weird about them?" Duvall asked.
"Give me an example," Dahl said.
"I mean that within five minutes of getting to my new post I heard three different stories of crew buying the farm on an away mission. Death by falling rock. Death by toxic atmosphere. Death by pulse gun vaporization."
"Death by shuttle door malfunction," Hanson said.
"Death by ice shark," Dahl said.
"Death by what?" Duvall said, blinking. "What the hell is an ice shark?"
"You got me," Dahl said. "I had no idea there was such a thing."
"Is it a shark made of ice?" Hanson asked. "Or a shark that lives in ice?"
"It wasn’t specified at the time," Dahl said, spearing a meat bit on his tray.
This awareness that Dahl and his mates have regarding the direness of their situation bumps up to a higher plane of meta around page 100, but I will refrain from spoiling that surprise for you. Suffice it to say that the parallels to the Star Trek universe become more explicitly obvious as the narrative continues.
Redshirts begins with a delicious premise that, wrapped in Scalzi’s wit, makes for some moderately entertaining reading. Unfortunately, this only carries the reader so far, and the neither the characters nor the writing is sufficiently compelling to rescue the novel from its own untimely demise.
Read the first five chapters of Redshirts at Tor.com, or download four chapters free for your Kindle. Also, be sure to check out Charles Yu’s similar parody, "Yeoman," in his recent collection Sorry Please Thank You.