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Review 195: Redshirts

Redshirts by John Scalzi

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said, on the meaning of life, “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.” Frederich Nietzche said, “If we possess a why of life, we can put up with almost any how.” And Stephen King wrote, “Life sucks, then you die.”

It’ll take a far better philosopher than I to really look at this book from an existentialist viewpoint, but I strongly suspect that it would be a lot of fun to do. After all, one of the major questions that philosophy – and existentialism in particular – tries to address is that of why we are here. What is our purpose in life? What, in the end, does it all mean? For us out here, that’s a question we can’t really know the answer to, and thus a whole branch of philosophy exists to tell us that it doesn’t really matter. That maybe we don’t have a purpose imposed upon us from outside, but that’s okay. We can create our own. We can contribute our own verses to the powerful play of life, as Whitman would have it, and in the end we are responsible for our own lives.

For this guy, going out of existence is probably more important…

But what if we weren’t? What if there was a being that orchestrated our lives, willing them into – and more importantly out of – existence? What would you do with the realization that your life is not entirely your own? And even worse, the realization that the person in control of it doesn’t really care all that much about you?

That is the problem faced by Ensign Andrew Dahl of the Universal Union flagship Intrepid. It is the 25th century, and things couldn’t be better. He has a chance to see new worlds and new civilizations, to boldly go… Well, you know the rest. Dahl is at the frontier of science and exploration, and is determined to make the most of it.

If he survives.

Alone among the ships of the UU, the Intrepid loses crew at an alarming rate. Dahl soon discovers a fact that has been known for years by those crew members who are bright enough to spot the pattern: people who go on away missions with the command staff will, almost inevitably, die. Toxic gasses, killer machines, Borgovian land worms – these are just a tiny sampling of dangers that have done in ensigns and miscellaneous crew for years, and no one seems to know why. All they can do is make sure they’re not in the room when the Captain comes in, looking for someone who’ll pop down to a planet’s surface to find out why that mining colony hasn’t reported in recently.

Nope, he’s going to die too.

Dahl, of course, just can’t let himself and his friends die, so he begins digging into the true nature of their lives on the starship Intrepid. What he discovers is a truth almost too mad to be believed: their lives are not their own. A greater power is directing events on the Intrepid, dictating who lives and who dies, and that greater power doesn’t seem to be very good at what it does. So Dahl and his friends have to bet everything on the power of the Narrative, meet their makers and try to find a way to secure their freedom. Or, failing that, a way to see to it that their lives have more meaning than they had before.

As always with John Scalzi, I recommend picking this up. It’s a very fast read – I finished it in under a day – and it has the tight combination of humor, thoughtfulness, and genuine emotion that I have come to expect from his work. From a premise that is incredibly simple – “The crew of a starship realize they’re doomed if they go on away missions and try to change their fate” – he’s built up a multi-layered exploration into the meaning of life and death. The universe he’s given to us is one where people are denied the ability to give meaning to their own lives, and have to rely on an unseen force to do it for them. The fight, then, is to acquire that ability to decide. To gain agency, as it were. They want to be able to control their own existence so badly that they risk their existence entirely.

The corollary, then, is very simple: what are you doing with your life? We, the readers, have that agency. We can make decisions for our own lives and our own purposes. If we succeed or fail, we can do so knowing that we made those successes or failures possible. [1] In a sense, we don’t know how good we have it, something that is brought up in the second of three codas to the main novel. We can choose. We can create meaning in our lives without hoping that some higher power will do it for us. So why don’t we?

For a book that presents itself as a quick, fun read, there are certainly layers upon layers of meaning in it that could be a lot of fun to explore. The only complaint, really, is that it wasn’t long enough. And I don’t mean that he skipped essential scenes, or that he should have opted for a Tolkien/Jordan/Martin-esque style of describing every goddamn thing that showed up on the page, but there were points where I just wanted him to slow down a bit and let us appreciate the moments for what they were. There’s a scene in chapter 21, for example, that should be really emotional and meaningful, but it’s almost entirely dialogue. Good dialogue, yes, but I wanted to linger over it a bit, and that’s true for a lot of scenes in the book. Scalzi writes wonderful banter, and makes his characters sound real, but I want to see things as well as hear them.

Also, to be honest, I expected the last page to just be a picture of Scalzi at his computer, turning to the camera and winking. It would have been hilariously meta, but I guess he’s not as gimmicky as that.

Buy the book and enjoy it. If you’re a fan of Star Trek – which was, given the title, a huge inspiration for the story – you’ll no doubt appreciate it more than most. Even if you haven’t watched every episode of the original series, though, the Red Shirt character is one that has permeated all levels of fiction, and has died many times in order to advance the plots that you love so well. He even has one poor guy who’s not only a Red Shirt, but nearly at the end of his tour and about to get married. There was no way he’d survive. Take some time out for these poor, expendable bastards and give them a chance to shine.

In conclusion, I’ll leave you with the song that Jonathan Coulton wrote for the book. Quiet, poignant, and touching. But also really funny.

—-
“The [Borgovian Land Worms] were in a frenzy. Somebody was now likely to die. It was likely to be ensign Davis.”
– from Redshirts by John Scalzi
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[1] There are plenty of external, uncontrollable factors, of course, which can all be lumped together under the term “luck,” but you know what I mean.

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Filed under existentialism, humor, John Scalzi, meta-fiction, quest, science fiction, space travel, story

Review 91: Memories of the Future, vol. 1


Memories of the Future volume 1 by Wil Wheaton

There’s something inherently sad about child actors. They’re called upon to do what older actors have been doing their whole lives, often acting alongside people who know their craft so much better than they do. To match the level of their adult counterparts, they have to work just that much harder, and they still get pigeonholed into fairly flat characters. For a lot of directors, even a poor child actor is good enough to fill out the character that has been created for him or her, so expectations are usually pretty low. In the end, a lot of child actors either burn out or give up.

Wil Wheaton wasn’t a bad actor as a kid – anyone who watched Stand By Me can agree on that. He certainly wasn’t what he could have become, but as child actors went, he did okay. Perhaps if he had been given the right roles with the right people, he would still be acting today and impressing us with the depth of his talent. As it was, he was on Star Trek: The Next Generation, which sent him down, let us say, a different path.

Wheaton’s experience on TNG was one that a lot of the fans (and I count myself among them) seriously under-appreciate. From the age of fourteen, he was given the unenviable role of playing one of the most despised characters in modern science fiction, at least before Jar Jar showed up. In the early heyday of the internet, before liveblogging and Twitter and Facebook, there was Usenet – an early internet discussion group. And one of those early groups was the infamous alt.wesley.crusher.die.die.die. The fans would speak of “The Wesley Crusher Problem” and write horrible fanfiction that would put Ensign Crusher through some of the most depraved torments they could think of. A small, but very vocal segment of the TNG fan base actively hated Wesley and, by extension, Wheaton.

I think he could have easily been forgiven for dropping out of the public eye forever after being treated like that. Fortunately for us, he has chosen otherwise.

With the growth of the Internet, Wheaton has really found his place. He’s a tech evangelist and one of the most active bloggers out there, discussing tech, games, family, politics, and whatever else he feels like talking about. He’s carved out a space for himself that doesn’t rest on his Star Trek credentials, and even if he had never been on the show, he’d still be a fine and upstanding member of the online community.

Surprisingly enough, he does not reject his days as Wesley Crusher, but embraces them. As terrible as it could be sometimes as The Kid – overlooked by writers and directors, hated by fans – he still got to do what most fourteen year-old boys (including this one) can only dream of doing: playing a space explorer on TV. He got to work with a group of fine men and women, and helped to create a show that would be truly beloved around the world. On balance, the good vastly outweighed the bad, and Wheaton was able to fold that experience into his life, making him a better person for it.

Memories of the Future is Wheaton’s tribute to his days on Star Trek. As he describes it, the book isn’t a salacious tell-all, revealing all of Trek’s dirty secrets. It’s more like “you’re flipping through your high school yearbook with your friends.” It’s an honest look at the first half of the first season, described only as someone who truly loves it can do: with snark, sarcasm and admiration for the work, but no illusions about when it was… shall we say, less than up to snuff.

It starts with Encounter at Farpoint and goes up to Datalore, covering the first twelve episodes of Season 1 (the summaries of the remaining episodes are forthcoming in volume 2). Each episode is summarized, in a hilarious and sarcastic fashion. True to his geek roots, he manages to work in references to all of the sacred touchstones: Monty Python, collectible card gaming, Dungeons and Dragons, and of course, the other Star franchise which we shall not name. He isn’t afraid to call out the writers when they make stupid choices, such as Dr. Crusher asking to bring Wesley onto the bridge during a major diplomatic/security crisis (Code of Honor) or having him casually solve a major plot point that all the experts in the room have been breaking their brains over, and then leave with a snide, “Heh. Adults.” (The Battle).

There’s quotable dialogue included for each episode, (“Oh, your species is always suffering and dying” – Q, Hide and Q) and Obligatory Technobabble (“Come off the main lead, split off at the force activator, then reversing the power leads through the force activator, repulsor beam powers against Tsiolkovsky!” – Wesley, The Naked Now). There’s also a Behind the Scenes Memory, giving us a good look at what it was like for Wheaton to work on the show, often showcasing how little he really knew about what was going on, and a section called The Bottom Line, which looks at each episode in the context of the whole series.

The episode recaps are at once both sentimental and brutally honest. Where there are flaws in the creative process, Wheaton points them out with a kind of rabid glee. Where there are gems of creativity, he shows us where they are as well. It’s the kind of look at TNG that could only have been done by someone who was a part of the show and loved it. He writes with clarity and honesty and, just to be sure I point it out again, humor. Lots and lots of humor.

It’s a very quick read, and a very enjoyable one. For bonus points, go find the “Memories of the Futurecast” podcast, wherein Wheaton reads selections from the book. It’s even funnier than reading it, and is a good way to kill fifteen or twenty minutes. And we podcasters have to stick together, right Wil? You and me, right? Right?

I may be overestimating our camaraderie.

If you’re a Trek fan, this book will be a nice visit to a better time. What’s more, this will probably make you want to go watch the first season again, if only to see if some of those early episodes are nearly as bad as he’s making them out to be. I can’t wait for volume 2.

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Riker looks at Troi and very seriously asks what’s wrong with his captain. Oh! Cool! We’re finally going to get to see Troi use her Betazoid abilities to tell us something more interesting than “Pain! Pain!” This will be the moment when Troi transitions from useless one dimensional plot device into a real character! What’s she going to say?!

The camera dramatically pushes in on her, as she looks at Riker and quietly says… “I wish I could say.”
From Battle, Memories of the Future, volume 1

Wil Wheaton on Wikipedia
Memories of the Future on lulu.com
Memories of the Future Podcast
Wil Wheaton’s blog

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Filed under humor, memoir, science fiction, Star Trek, television, Wil Wheaton