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.

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