Redshirts – A Meta Classic

I just finished Redshirts, by John Scalzi…I listened to the audiobook version, as read by Wil Wheaton (a perfect choice…but I’ll get to that). Ostensibly, the science fiction plot concerns low-ranking officers aboard the Intrepid, the flagship of the ‘Universal Union’ in the 25th Century. Commensurate with their status on the totem pole, they’re often assigned to the ‘away team’ missions with the cocky and brash Captain, the coldly logical Science Officer, the emotional Chief Medical Officer, the miracle-working Engineer, or the adventurous (and often-injured) Astrogator. All too often, these missions result in the bizarre deaths of such low-ranked personnel…but never those five officers. Our Enterprise-ing young heroes start to suspect that things (like recuperation rates or technobabble solutions or the basic physical laws of the universe) are seriously skewed aboard the Intrepid…and it’s only a matter of WHEN, not IF, they’ll find themselves at the mercy of Borgovian landworms or Longranian ice sharks (Are they sharks that swim in ice? Sharks made of ice? No one knows.).  So they decide to find out what’s going on—and do something about it.

The, INTREPID fires laser blasts

Open fire with all pha…uh, pulse rays! Full spread, pho…er, neutrino missiles! And turn off the damn lens flares!

This book is more than just an homage to the original series of Star Trek, though. It’s obviously a loving but discerning tribute to the show; while you can practically see the cheesy starship sets and the blatantly set-on-a-soundstage “planets,” the author doesn’t shy away from pointing out the horribly bad science that was a hallmark of Star Trek. The book provides an interesting look at the “redshirts”—those members of Star Trek’s away missions who always seemed to die in silly or fanciful ways, all to provide a dramatically apt moment right before a commercial break. But it turns out to be a lot more than that…it digs down deep into the essence of “meta” and flips it on its head.

For those who don’t know, “Meta” is the fancy term used nowadays to describe breaking the fourth wall, that usually-inviolable barrier between the characters in a fiction and the reader/watcher/listener. Meta involves a bit more than that; it involves the characters being more or less self-referential about themselves and their genre; they might or might not break the fourth wall but they’re definitely looking in that direction. Joss Whedon is one of the masters of meta…Cabin in the Woods is pretty meta, as well as Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Remember the guys who quote the ‘rules’ of horror movies in Scream, a horror movie in which they’re characters? That’s meta. Zack talking to the camera in Saved by the Bell? Meta.

Here’s an example: Nathan Fillion, ex-star of Firefly, a science fiction show set in the future, is now on Castle, a detective show set in present-day New York. If, say, he dresses up for Halloween as his character from Firefly on Castle and makes a joke about how it was all the rage 10 years ago, that’s meta (and they do that sort of thing at least once a season). If one of his former co-stars from Firefly does an episode of Castle, and they make a Firefly-related joke, AND then look towards the camera sheepishly, that’s even meta-ier. The fourth wall hasn’t been broken per se…but everyone knows it’s there. Note that this can be tough to do without derailing the audience’s suspension of disbelief and enjoyment of the story.

Captain Hammer strikes a pose

Also known as “Meta-Man”…able to smash fourth walls with his hammer. And, no, the hammer is NOT his [REDACTED].

Without spoiling anything, Redshirts manages to get very VERY meta…but never loses its sense of fun or adventure. The story maintains its own internal logic throughout (not a bad feat, as “internal logic” is itself a plot point). It’s as if the characters broke down the fourth wall…then built a room on the other side of it, and put in new walls, painted them a slightly off-white color, and hung some nice pictures. Then added a throw rug and brought in a tasteful sofa.

That’s one reason Wil Wheaton was a perfect choice for reading the version of this book. Not only does he do a good job—as a fan, he manages to convey a perfect sense of Trek style with a pause in the Captain’s bluster or with the haughty tone of the Science Officer—Wil himself is an example of the book’s meta-ness, since he is a former cast member of the Trek franchise. Given the major theme of meta throughout the book, I have to believe this was a conscious choice of the author…and a good one.

If you’re a fan of Star Trek, you’ll love this book. It manages to do more than just give the ‘redshirts’ backstories (any licensed spin-off book can do that, with varying degrees of success). It also manages to make you look at all of those dead members of away teams in a whole new light. They’re people…not just characters. Joss Whedon gets a lot of crap for killing off beloved charactersCoulson Lives! Wash, nooooo!!—but at least A) they were around enough and involved in the story enough to make you care about them and B) their deaths were usually logical and central to the episode’s plot and to the surrounding characters’ development as a whole.

And if you’re not a fan, but you like a bit of philosophy and “hmmm…interesting concept” in your reading, you’ll enjoy this book too. The subject matter has been dealt with before (c.f. The Purple Rose of Cairo, The Last Action Hero) but this manages to get pretty deep, even given its superficial-on-its-face setting. Especially in the long, long epilogues (called “codas” here). This book should be required reading in ANY creative writing class as an object lesson in the need to create believable characters who seem like actual people. Because they just might be, somewhere…

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