Reading the Hugos: Redshirts, by John Scalzi.

In my previous post, I said I wanted to know more about the Puppies’ origins and claims (sad, rabid, lunatic, or in any other mental state.) Although sometimes it seems more like a controversy about what silly people say on Twitter, it’s essentially a literary one, and the main issue is the belief that the quality of science fiction and fantasy has degraded and the genre has become dominated by a clique of ideologues. Now, that there are a lot of ideologues out there on social media is true, and obvious, but I wanted to read their books. Are they really that bad, or are some people projecting their hopes and Internet drama?

So, because Brian Neimeier mentioned it, it won a Hugo award, and the name of its authors routinely appears when talking about Puppy-related conundrums, I decided to read and review Redshirts, by John Scalzi.

So, short review: Is Redshirts a good book? No.

Does it deserve a Hugo? No, and I can understand why people started asking questions about how this novel won the award for Best Novel, something that puts it among works like A Canticle for Leibowitz, Dune, or Ringworld.

Because I believe the bad things are more numerous than the good ones, I’ll mention these ones first. It’s a comedy book, and although I didn’t laugh out loud, it has a few good jokes here and there. It’s also easy (perhaps too easy) to read, and it has quite a lot of Star Trek references. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, though. It’s also an interesting exercise in meta-narratives, but the problem with meta is that it’s easy to cross the very thin line from interesting to pretentious or silly. And I think Redshirts crosses it.

Now, what is wrong with the book? First of all, it’s not well written. I don’t mean it’s not well written as a science fiction novel or that the plot is silly. No, I mean that -at least in this book- the author’s skill as a writer, his ability to put thoughts, images, and events into words seems to be on vacation.

I’m actually surprised about this because John Scalzi has worked as an editor, and he is not a self-published author who only uses Word’s spellchecker to see if his writing is correct. Also, Tor (the publisher of the book) has won a few Hugos for Best Professional Editor (five out of ten, in fact.) I’m quite shocked that nobody saw that this, the first paragraph (it’s a single sentence) of the book, is an aberration:

From the top of the large boulder he sat on, Ensign Tom Davis looked across the expanse of the cave toward Captain Lucius Abernathy, Science Officer Q’eeng and Chief Engineer Paul West perched on a second, larger boulder, and thought, Well, this sucks.

Were you able to read that without stumbling? Quick question: who is perched on the second, larger boulder? The three of them, Paul West, or perhaps Q’eeng and West? Because Scalzi doesn’t use the Oxford comma either, the answer is even more challenging. This would have been a bit better:

From the top of the large bouder he sat on, Ensign Tom Davis looked across the expanse of the cave toward Captain Lucius Abernathy, Science Office Q’eenq, and Chief Engineer Paul West, who were all perched on a second, larger boulder. Well, this sucks, he thought.

Then there’s this:

And it was then, as he skidded backward, and while his face showed surprise, in fact, that Ensign Davis had an epiphany.

Who writes like this? What is that “in fact” doing there, and who writes “while his face showed surprise”? Why not something like: “It was then, still surprised and as he skidded backward, that Ensign David had an epiphany.

To be fair, the next chapters are a little better, but the reason could be the lack of descriptions. Still, a paragraph that puzzled me to no end was this one from chapter seven, one of the few combat scenes in the book:

The thing roared and reared back and Dahl pushed himself back from the thing, and it was on him again and Dahl could feel teeth on his shoulder and a burning sensation that let him know that whatever had just bit him was also venomous.

Again, a single sentence, with five “and”s. At least there is a comma. Here’s a quickly edited but better version:

The thing roared and reared back. Dahl pushed himself back from it, but soon it was on him again, and Dahl felt the thing’s teeth on his shoulder. A burning sensation let him know that whatever had jus bit him was also venomous.

Besides, talking about a “thing” works better when the creature is a Lovecraftian horror that defies description. And even if that’s the case, it’s useful to try to say a few things about the creature, especially if it’s just a few feet away from the main character. Otherwise, it just feels like laziness on the author’s part.

Speaking about descriptions, there is hardly anything properly described in the book. The ship, the planets, the rooms, the characters… nothing is explained. The ship may as well be a floating potato, for all we know. Only of one character, Ensign Duvall, something is said. She is a woman, and on one occasion she is described as beautiful, which makes the next point even more puzzling: All characters are very similar and seem to speak with the same voice (a 21st-century American who talks like people talk on social media, so I guess it’s Scalzi’s voice.)

It does not matter if the character is a woman or a man, what they do, or their personality, they all sound the same. Duvall, in fact, behaves more like a man than a woman. She makes blowjobs references and apparently talks freely about her sexual needs (“an itch to scratch”) in front of an all-male group. In fact, when asked why she had been sleeping with an unsavory lieutenant (Kerensky, the only one with a differentiated personality,) she says this:

“And anyway, don’t get on me for scratching an itch. None of you were exactly stepping up.”

I’m sorry, but I have problems believing that a beautiful woman who makes sexual references in front of a group of young bachelors would have problems with people not stepping up. Perhaps it’s some sort of liberal utopia, where everyone is and behaves the same, but whatever the reason, the answer is obvious: Duvall is a dude. There is absolutely nothing, except the pronoun ‘she’ (and in this new brave world of ours, that doesn’t mean much,) that may indicate she is a woman.

Now, what about the plot? It’s empty and quite irrelevant. The story is easy to explain, although maybe not to understand: imagine if those nameless extras in Star Trek (the redshirts) became aware that they are in a crappy television show. Knowing that it is their destiny to be killed simply to add a little drama, they would try to stop the show. And that’s the story of Redshirts, where a group of ensigns realizes that -somehow- a show from our time is affecting their lives and, in the end, it will kill them. They go back in time and convince the producers and writers to stop the show, so they can go on with their lives without the “Narrative” (what the writers write) making them do stupid stuff or killing them.

And that’s the problem, everything in the book ends up being Narrative (i.e. arbitrary stuff.) In the end, Dhall, the protagonist, realizes that the whole event had been a story inside another story. Basically, he realizes he is the character of a book. It’s so meta I’m amazed the writer itself didn’t appear there to taunt the protagonist while the book exploded under the pressure of all those self-references.

The problem with that is that it makes anything that happens in the book irrelevant. The suspension of belief and the “reality” of that fictional creation are broken, shattered, and then crucified in front of their crying families. When you admit that the whole book is just some shit the writer made up, shit that it’s explicitly described as impossible or even absurd… what’s the point? Adventure? There isn’t really much of that. Action? It isn’t there and, besides, you know they will survive because the Narrative requires it. Wonder and amazing distant planets? Meh, nothing is really described, and the story could have happened anywhere anyway.

The few good ideas, the jabs at the overused tropes, or the interesting premises the novel show are made irrelevant by the pseudo-philosophising plot and its irrelevant conclusion. What does it matter if they live happily ever after or get brutally murdered if it’s just some crap the writers makes up as he goes?

Why is it even a science fiction novel when it could have been about space pirates riding unicorns through the ether of space? Why should the reader care about what happens when almost the author himself appears saying “hey, all of this is nonsense, and everything can happen.”

I should say that the book doesn’t appear to be overtly political or ideological, even though it suffers from that common sin of people who want to “transcend” the tropes of the genre: the subversion and meta-referencing. It’s not unlike those contemporary artists who make “art that isn’t art” or “art that is art when the spectator watches it.” It feels like the artists think what they are doing is intelligent, but I think it’s just pretentious and meaningless.

Finally, I understand it’s a joke that gets better once you read the ending, but in a book so full of meta and self-references, writing this may not have been the best idea:

“Okay, now, that is recursive and meta,” Duvall said.

“I think that’s probably what it is,” Hester said. “We’ve already established whoever is writing us is an asshole. This sounds like just the sort of thing an asshole writer would do.”

Conclusion: Well, although it’s sometimes fun and I would not describe it as horrible, I’m quite sure that this does not deserve a Hugo Award, and at least in this case the Puppies are right. Something fishy is going on here. I’ll keep reading the Hugo winners to see how deep the rabbit goes.


9 thoughts on “Reading the Hugos: Redshirts, by John Scalzi.

  1. This scares me a little. I bought Scalzi’s Lock In a while ago and haven’t had the motivation to read it yet. I’m afraid that the more I read about him and his works, the less likely I will ever be to muster sufficient motivation.


  2. dmdr

    I’d be interested in a review of Ann (or Kate?) Leckie’s books, the first of which at least is supposed to be pretty good, and maybe something by N.K. Jemison — her most recent was the best novel at the Hugos, if I recall correctly, and I was thinking of reading it myself to see if there was anything behind all the hype. You could save me some trouble!

    NB. I enjoyed the post replying to my spergish outburst about animals and HP damage in D&D; I should check in a little more often, shouldn’t I?


    1. emperorponders

      The next one on my list is Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, and I also have N.K. Jemisin somewhere. I have a lot of stuff to do, but those are the next ones.


  3. The first and only Scalzi book I’ve ever read – Old Man’s War – was so bad it put me off science fiction altogether for years. From the sounds of things, his writing has deteriorated since then.


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