Redshirts by John Scalzi

September 26, 2012 at 11:17 pm | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 2 Comments
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Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas begins by asking what it would be like to be one of the low ranking bit players in Star Trek. Ensign Andrew Dahl arrives at the Universal Union flagship Intrepid expecting to work on the front lines of xenobiology, but he finds himself on the front lines of a different sort of conflict. It turns out that serving on the Intrepid, particularly on away missions, is essentially a death warrant…unless you are a senior officer. The crew has reacted by doing everything possible to avoid going on away missions, leaving the duty to new recruits like Dahl.

Has there been any show mocked more thoroughly than Star Trek? Over the decades it’s fought a losing war on two fronts, assailed from the mainstream for being geeky (things like pointy ears and funny uniforms) and attacked by geeks for not being geeky enough (things like technobabble and…yes…the red shirt phenomenon). In its opening section Redshirts makes a few of the usual “not geeky enough” complaints, but after dipping a toe into the waters of parody it turns and walks away from the pool. If he set out to do it, I think Scalzi could probably write a funny novel-length parody of Star Trek, or even of science fiction in general, but that’s not his objective here. It’s probably to his credit that he has higher aspirations than beating a horse that, if not dead, has already endured more than its fair share of beatings. Unfortunately, Scalzi’s ambition rather exceeds his execution. I’m reminded of his Hugo-nominated short story, which started out as a serviceable parody but needlessly lurched into trying to Say Something.

Redshirts at least manages the transition better. The early stages where Ensign Dahl begins questioning what is going on around him are the best part of the novel. Questioning the standard account of the world around you has become a cliche in YA, where the adults are always lying about it, but it ought to be more common in adult science fiction. Actual science, you know, that process by which we learn about the world around us, is surprisingly rare in science fiction, so it was nice to see Dahl using scientific methods (well, someone else does the heavy lifting, but Dahl is at least persuaded by those methods) to discover the truth of his world. I won’t spoil the answers he finds even though they arrive less than halfway through the novel because, as I said, the process of getting to them is the best part of the book. In fact, it’s the only part of the book I liked.

That the answers come around the middle of the book signposts a part of the problem: the answers are clear but not really all that satisfying. If they were satisfying, Scalzi would have left them to the end. Instead, Dahl discovers the truth of the world, and then spends the rest of the book wrestling unconvincingly with the consequences. This part of the book wants to be about taking control of your own fate, but Dahl comes up with a solution to his problems which, in fact, makes even less sense than the television-logic the book elsewhere criticizes. But even then it’s still not over: the story is then doused in unconvincing melodrama that only intensifies as the novel enters its titular three codas.

Rather than nitpick the specifics of the story, I will note that the metafictional maneuver Scalzi makes is a well-worn path in fiction. It may be new to many of his readers, since Scalzi is a popular writer and popular fiction generally stays away from metafiction. But popular fiction stays away from metafiction for good reason: it is inherently unsatisfying, and the more you think about it the less satisfying it is. Great writers can get away with this because the reader is too busy admiring the great writing or the insights into the human conditions, and perhaps also because their readers tend to be other writers and (ahem) reviewers who enjoy literary pyrotechnics even if they come at the expense of plot and character.

In a way Scalzi may actually be a great writer, but it’s a way that hurts his fiction. Over his many years of blogging he’s cultivated a very distinctive voice that has made it one of the most popular genre sites on the Internet. This voice is clearly audible not just in his blog posts but also in the mouths of his characters…all his characters. It had been more than three years since I’d read a Scalzi novel when I started the opening scene of Redshirts and the “witty banter” was, well, bracing. Because Scalzi’s debut novel Old Man’s War was a military adventure story, it was easier to forgive the failings of the dialogue and characterization. Here the book is depending on the reader’s connection with the characters to sell the melodrama, but for me at least there was no connection. In fact, looking back at my review of Old Man’s War (the contents of which, needless to say, I had completely forgotten) virtually all of my complaints there can be repackaged for this review. The main character of Redshirts has a really interesting backstory: he went to seminary on an alien world, spent years immersed in their culture, became essentially a pastor in this alien church, and then got kicked off world due to political instability. That sounds like it might be a great novel right there! But alas this backstory is mentioned once or twice and then ignored, and despite it Andrew Dahl is a completely bog standard good guy protagonist. Oh, at one point there is a gesture made toward Dahl’s religious inclinations leading him to use the aforementioned scientific reasoning to question the world when others do not, a bizarre idea that would be simultaneously offensive to the story’s religious and non-religious readers were there any sense that the author actually believed it, but it’s immediately dropped.

And that’s another element of Old Man’s War that continues to lurk years later in Scalzi’s writing: his habit of pointing out some interesting feature of the world or the protagonist’s situation…and then ignoring it. This may be an idiosyncratic reaction but I find this to be a really irritating authorial tic. Scalzi seems to want to assure us that, yes, he is clever and self-aware enough to have noticed this or that issue, but he’s not going to bother to actually write anything about it. The worst instance of this in Redshirts is when the protagonist raises a moral objection to the way the more experienced crew avoids away missions and dispatches new recruits who don’t know any better to their death. This is a real can of worms, because while it is intuitively obvious it is an Immoral Thing these characters are doing, what would be the more ethical alternative? Lottery? A utilitarian calculation of each crew member’s remaining potential utility? Well, no solutions are in fact proposed and absolutely nothing is done about it. The protagonist has a moment of righteous anger and then the whole thing is dropped.

Toward the end of the novel Scalzi has a character mention some similar books and movies. If this was an attempt to pre-empt comparisons, if failed, because I hadn’t read or seen any of those he mentioned except Last Action Hero, a movie which isn’t much like Redshirts in that it succeeded or failed as an adventure piece, not something dramatic or thought-provoking. Instead, what came to mind for me was Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners”, which is also a metafictional story about what it’s like to be a character on a geeky television show. Unlike Redshirts, it has dazzling prose, believable characters, and the metafiction doesn’t fall apart upon examination. Also unlike Redshirts, it’s nearly impenetrable on first reading and thus is probably inaccessible to a lot of readers, but anyone interested can find a link on Kelly Link’s site (and my own explication here).

“The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City” John Scalzi

May 23, 2012 at 12:48 am | Posted in Short Stories | 1 Comment
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This is the second of five short stories nominated for this year’s Hugo award. This one was published by Tor.com and is freely available online.

Hot on the heels of “Homecoming”‘s moral daring comes an even more risky story, in which Jon Scalzi enrages the fan community by…writing something funny. At least, that’s how he frames the situation in his post celebrating his nomination. The fan community is diverse enough that I’m sure he’s right, and that there are Very Serious Fans who will despise this story for daring to take the genre at anything less than face value, but then again I doubt there are very many. This is, after all, the same genre that venerates Terry Pratchett and which will still be celebrating Douglas Adams after we’re all dead even though Adams’ career involved the uneven distribution of about a novel’s worth of material across a dozen novels, screenplays, and radio scripts. Then again, Terry Pratchett has never won or, from what I can tell, even been nominated for a Hugo or Nebula (I had to double-check this astounding fact). Perhaps people just leave funny books off their ballot when it comes time to vote for awards even if they liked them better than what they’re actually voting for?

Scalzi’s story shouldn’t be penalized for being funny, but it probably should be penalized for not being funny enough. Published on April 1st, it was obviously intended to be a trifle working in a very long tradition of Bulwer-Lytton pastiches. It’s certainly amusing in places, but although short, it’s still quite a bit longer than the amount of humor justifies. Instead of going completely over the top, Scalzi tries to make some sort of point about the political uses of superstition, but there’s no room in such a short story for this to go anywhere.

I don’t read enough short fiction to know if this is the funniest genre short story published in 2011. So few humorous stories are published that I’m afraid it’s possible, but that’s a very low bar. That Scalzi got a nomination for a story that I’m sure he would admit is just a shadow of even Pratchett’s lesser work doesn’t, as he seems to think, undermine the oh-so-serious Hugo awards (I seem to remember any seriousness being fatally undermined by a certain nominee involving Ray Bradbury last year) or act as validation for genre humor. We all know what it really represents is validation of Scalzi’s popularity as a blogger. People often complain about this (especially after the 2009 Hugo nominations for Best Novel) but I don’t begrudge Scalzi his success. It’s extremely difficult to write a good blog (personally I can vouch for it even being difficult to write a bad one!). Writing good genre fiction that’s also humorous is, based on its rarity, something even more difficult, but I’d like to see more authors do it. Even though I’ll be ranking “No Award” higher than this story, I hope to see Scalzi write something along these lines that’s more substantial in the future.

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

March 18, 2009 at 10:24 pm | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment
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In one way at least, Ghost Brigades is an admirable sequel: it delivers a very similar experience to the first book without simply being a redo.  That’s a lot harder than it sounds.  It also doesn’t really result in a great book, because in my apparently somewhat minority opinion Old Man’s War was enjoyable but ultimately unsatisfying.

It would have been easy for Scalzi to simply write episode two of the military adventures of his protagonist in Old Man’s War.  Instead, he bravely leaves that character in the background, elevates a supporting character to a leading role, and meanwhile sets up a totally different opening scenario.  It’s actually pretty interesting: a top scientist betrays humanity and is working for the alien enemy.  No one knows why, so they clone him and implant the copy of his consciousness the scientist accidentally left behind when he left.  It doesn’t take, so they send the fast-grown clone off to special forces.

This is a pretty interesting premise.  Now, there’s some rough going at the beginning as the infodumps come fast and furious and there’s a lot of babbling about “consciousness” that sounds a lot like Star Trek transporter nonsense.  Then things settle down and we get Heinlein-light military adventures similar in tone to the first book.  The rest of the book doesn’t have anything wrong with it, per se, but like its predecessor it comes off feeling insubstantial.

Based on the setup I’ve described, you can probably guess what the central complication of the latter part of the book is.  It’s so obvious I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say maybe some of the traitor’s consciousness did make it in there after all.  Now I think there are some interesting places to take that idea, but Ghost Brigades is utterly predictable.  There are some other issues, too, beyond the basic plot.  Scalzi’s approach to showing this process means that the main character spends the first part of the book being a thoroughly passive and therefore thoroughly uncompelling character.  Later in the book the word “soul” is actually used instead of “consciousness” but there’s no real examination of the implications of that.

As with Old Man’s War, the politics and world-building are the most interesting part of the affair, but ultimately not too much attention is given to this.  The traitor, for example, believes certain startling things about the human government, but the main characters ignore them and the official response amounts to “haha he doesn’t know what’s really going on lol” and then the book ends.  After two books of offering tantalizing hints without ever dealing with it directly I can only assume Scalzi isn’t interested himself, or at the very least is sweeping it under the rug since his jaded main characters don’t care.  In the middle of Ghost Brigades the main characters have to do some things they consider morally repugnant, but ultimately they just complain a bit and then do their job.  Orders are orders, apparently.  Hopefully Scalzi will blow up this dubious philosophy in a later book, but at this rate I don’t know if I’ll read it.

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

March 1, 2009 at 7:27 pm | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment
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It takes a lot of guts to write an SF book that strongly recalls one of the most-read books in the genre. Most of your readers will have read the older work and the danger of unfavorable comparison is very large. Old Man’s War is such a book, so faithful in its echoing of Starship Troopers that at times it could almost be a remake.

But it’s not. Scalzi stakes out his book’s reason for existence on two points of departure. First, the preachy undercurrent of Starship Troopers has been removed. It’s not just that the preaching itself is gone but more subtly this is a world that is painted in the moral grays of modern intellectual thought. The second is that, whereas the setting of Starship Troopers amounted to “war against bugs”, in Old Man’s War the world and main character have a number of very interesting elements. In an inversion of the usual practice, the human side of this war is fought by old men and women who are paid with rejuvenation. The human government is advanced but shadowy and distant, keeping Earth entirely in the dark about the war and everyone else in almost as much ignorance. The aliens are not a monolithic enemy but a vast collection of almost universally hostile species, intelligent but too alien to truly understand.

Having introduced us to this world with the crossing-over mechanic more frequently seen in fantasy, Scalzi efficiently moves the story through all the moments you expect when reading military fiction like this: training, graduation, first assignment, first combat, etc. His sparse first person narrative matches the needs of the story well and while the dialogue isn’t always totally convincing, the narrator is likable and manages to inject some humor into what would otherwise be a rather grim story.

Unfortunately, I had two problems with the novel. Big problems. The first is that although a big deal is made of the protagonist’s age, only minimal biographical edits would be required to remove this element. All of the book’s old soldiers act virtually identical to their young counterparts in the dozens of military SF books that have preceded this one.

The second problem is that without the political and social commentary, there’s not a lot to Starship Troopers. Removing that stuff makes Old Man’s War lean and more accessible, but the addition, namely the setting, is just superficial. I’ve already complained about the way age is handled, but in fact while Scalzi teases many different interesting ideas in the book there is no follow through on any of them.  To pick just one example, the soldiers have very little in common with the people they are fighting for. This fact is observed a few times but not investigated. It’s an interesting situation, and one with parallels in today’s world…wouldn’t it be great if the book really examined that?

Well, a book did do that: it was called Forever War. I’m sure Scalzi has read it, but he sticks close by Heinlein’s side for Old Man’s War even though his setting is screaming for him to update and react to Haldeman’s book. I suppose it’s possible he uses the sequels to engage with all the ideas he introduced without investigation and I’ll probably give them a try, but Old Man’s War is a finely written confection, satisfying for what it is but without the substance I would have liked.

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