To Boldly Go Where Fiction Has Been Before – Red Shirts by John Scalzi

Redshirts by John Scalzi presents the odd scenario of a cable TV sci-fi show, projected through a hole in space and time, giving rise to parallel future events. Now just go with it, but for reasons not really explained, the dodgy plot lines of The Chronicles Of The Intrepid dictate what happens to a real space ship called Intrepid hundreds of years later. Since the driving force is a television show, Intrepid’s adventures are shaped by the demands of drama rather than rationality.

“Every battle is designed for maximum drama… This is what happens when the Narrative takes over. Things quit making sense. The laws of physics take a coffee break. People stop thinking logically and start thinking dramatically.”

Now this whole idea of a future powered by a Star Trek rip off, might seem extremely unlikely. But before we get too dismissive, let’s remember the past, where leaders and politicians, in the interests of a heroic narrative, have often sent rationality on repeated and lengthy coffee breaks. Much of what we know as history is less a succession of facts, more a narrative designed to support political considerations of the present day. Just a few examples – Hitler made up stories of persecuted German minorities to get World War 2 going. Churchill, in retaliation spun a stirring tale in which 1940s Britain, a dour place, short of money, remains a superpower where Henry V is continually winning the Battle of Agincourt. And as of late 2019, a prime minister carries on with Churchill’s narrative, which makes him look like a strong leader, at the cost of creating destructive trouble and drama in our relationship with Europe where none need exist. Looking at the past and present we see storytelling impinging on real life all the time. There is no reason to think that the future will be any different.

So the idea of Redshirts does have its own veracity. It might be unlikely that present day television could directly influence events hundreds of years hence, or that characters could freak out their LA screenwriters by taking on a life of their own, but reality and drama do exist in an odd relationship. The stories which people find compelling might be corny, unlikely, over sentimental and confusing, qualities which all apply to Redshirts at times, but they are still powerful enough to frequently win out over mere facts.

In summary, this is an ambitious book, looking at the various ways fiction and real life collide. It is generally written in an attractive, humorous style, although there is a strange approach to dialogue. There are dialogue tags – as in, Dahl said, Duvall said – after virtually every line of speech which makes for a stilted feel. Also, given that the novel’s characters are causing their author a bit of a breakdown by taking on a life of their own, some of them are not clearly drawn. They all tend to communicate in the same quippy style, which sometimes makes it hard to tell one from another. But apart from these reservations, I would recommend Redshirts as an interesting and amusing meditation on fiction.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Writer

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy reminded me of a Harry Potter book – in that they’re both about apparently ordinary people living hidden lives. These thoughts of Harry Potter seemed relevant as the book opened, with scenes at a public school, where lonely new boy, Bill Roach, notices the arrival of a mysterious teacher. Children are imaginative. Some picture themselves as wizards or witches in a world of uncomprehending muggles. Others might believe they are secret agents, on a mission which their uninspiring fellow pupils know nothing about.

After the opening school chapter, we launch into a spy story, the central character, George Smiley, described as the sort of man Bill Roach might become as an adult. This description served as another hint that, in this Russian doll of a book, I was reading the boy’s story, where he imagines his future self pursuing a Russian mole working for British intelligence.

The title, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, of course, comes from a nursery rhyme – tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor… This title sums up much of the novel’s subtlety. There’s a suggestion once again of that link with a childhood game, and of the way our roles in life, doled our arbitrarily in the words of the rhyme, are misleading labels for something more complex. After all, the book presents spies as indistinguishable from ordinary people. In fact spies are better at their job if they are indistinguishable from ordinary people. There’s also a nod in the rhyme to the interchangeability of roles between one side and the other, a situation of double agents who seem to be the embodiment of one system, when they also working for the enemy.

The job of writer isn’t in the Tinker Tailor title, but it could come just after Spy. Spies are often referred to as watchers in the book, and what is a writer if he or she is not a watcher, working for their own little agency? This was a dossier received with much interest at my own agency.

Main Street, A Journey Through America Past And Present

I didn’t know where to start a review of this book, so I decided to start at the beginning. The Puritan settlers are on the Mayflower sailing for the New World. What sort of main streets would they eventually have in their towns? Well, these people are famously seeking freedom, so it is unlikely they would be big fans of someone telling them how to build their town. On the other hand, they are not seeking freedom in the sense of running through meadows with flowers in their hair. Puritans are religious fundamentalists. They are looking for the freedom to be just as fundamental as they want to be.

So come forward a few hundred years and what do we find? We find a book about the odd, contradictory towns that evolved in America, trying to express freedom and fundamentalism at the same time. Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, published in 1920, tells the story of Carol Milford, a clever and ambitious young woman, who at college harbours dreams of a career as a town planner. However, she marries a doctor, who persuades her to settle with him in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Gopher Prairie is about as far from town planning as you can imagine. This place has grown up piecemeal, as a centre for surrounding farms, where farmers can sell their produce, access a few basic services, and buy some essentials. The very fact that the town evolved in this unplanned manner, is supposedly an expression of the freedom of the American way. And yet there is also plenty of Puritanism about Gopher Prairie, curtain twitching, moralising and judgement. You can only be individual here in a narrowly accepted manner. If you are really out of the ordinary, a fey young man with artistic ambitions, or a young woman with new social ideas, the town’s idea of freedom will probably not extend to you. Ironically there is a sense of standardisation about this town which supposedly grew up in such a freewheeling rugged, individual, American manner. Carol discovers that ramshackle Gopher Prairie is virtually identical to many other towns in the American Midwest, as though they had all been laid out to some standard scheme.

Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street is a long meditation on this peculiarly American combination of freedom and rigidity. It’s a big, sprawling book with no discernible plot, like a soap opera; but it’s lack of plot seems carefully planned. It’s not the most obviously exciting read, but it finds danger, excitement and drama hidden in the every day. There are a lot of scenes in kitchens, involving gossip, scandal, cooking, and the odd amputation of the injured limbs of farmers.

There were times when I wondered why I was wading through this interminable description of small town life, but I kept on going and was glad I did. Main Street is a good way to understand America and Americans, especially today as the country struggles with leaders of government who display aspects of dictatorship and chaotic incompetence, in lethal combination.