‘Redshirts’: It’s all in the uniform

Gabriela Lee
But when you have actual control over an actual living being, what kind of story will you produce?

2013 HUGO AWARD BEST NOVEL. 'Redshirts' allows us to glimpse the world from the point of view of some of the most ignored and forgotten characters on genre TV. Cover image courtesy of Gabriela Lee

MANILA, Philippines – John Scalzi’s Hugo Award-nominated novel “Redshirts” shows us that each life is important — even if it’s fictional.

Science-fiction TV shows have always relied on the ubiquitous crowd of hundreds, even thousands of security officers and nameless and faceless extra characters that have provided anything and everything: from being human shields to background bit players, to moments of dramatic tension and emotional gravity, to entertain and inspire viewers with every episode.

But what if, instead of focusing on the captains and the presidents and the stars of the show, the story focused on the life of an ordinary extra and somehow made him extraordinary?

This is the premise of the science-fiction novel “Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas” by “Babylon 5” writer and former president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, John Scalzi [@scalzi on Twitter].

Playing with the possibility that reality and fiction are just neighboring universes, Scalzi uses this idea and runs away with it, resulting in a playful and startlingly profound adventure that makes us question the very meaning of our existence in a largely meaningless world.

The novel, which recently won the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Novel, allows us to glimpse the world from the point of view of some of the most ignored and forgotten characters on genre TV.

The term “redshirts” is used to great effect here. The term rose into pop culture prominence during the “Star Trek: The Original Series” run, when viewers noticed that characters who wore the red Starfleet uniform — security officers, engineering cadets, and characters who were never given names — were usually the first casualties of any alien encounter. The main characters always survived the adventure.

In “Redshirts,” he focuses on the point of view of Ensign Andrew Dahl, a xenobiology officer assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid. It also focuses on Dahl’s adventures in deep space with 4 other friends as they discover that everything on the ship — and their life stories — is not at all what it seems.

With his 4 friends — Maia, Jimmy, Finn and Hester — they realize that their daily lives aboard the Intrepid had a tendency of being disrupted by the “Grand Narrative,” where everyone ends up speaking in dramatic one-liners. Things also have a habit of exploding, much like in a bad sci-fi TV show.

But unlike in TV shows, where we know that everything’s made up and nobody really dies, in the universe that Dahl inhabits, the people who have died usually stay, well, dead.

Using the tropes of classic science-fiction shows, “Redshirts” uses these basic patterns to reconstruct life on a deep-space exploratory star ship and shows us that each life has value, and is worth living.

After the discovery of Dahl and his friends that they are actually connected, in some weirdly fantastical way, to an actual TV show in 2013 called “The Chronicles of the Intrepid,” they decide to do a little time travel [using the same shoddy mechanics in the show that simulates time travel]. They find a way to save themselves from the same grisly fate as the other extras in the TV show.

Along the way, they realize that, despite being written as cardboard characters for the express purpose of dying later on, they are still central characters in their own narratives. In fact, Dahl realizes this when he says, “Three times I should have been dead…but I’m not. I get hurt. I get hurt really badly. But I don’t die. That’s when I figured it out. I’m the protagonist.”

This self-awareness is actually what propels the story forward: after all, if you knew that your life and your death was at the hands of some scriptwriting hack in Hollywood, wouldn’t you try every possible way to convince that scriptwriter not to kill you in the most useless and gruesome way imaginable?

But aside from its themes of self-actualization and free will, “Redshirts” also tackles the act of writing and producing fiction. After all, creators have power over their characters, and decide where their characters will go and what they will be doing. It’s like playing God, except on the small screen (or on the page).

But when you have actual control over an actual living being, what kind of story will you produce?

In the 3 codas that are appended at the end of the novel, this question is explored in 3 different ways — but with the same result.

We all have control over our lives, so let’s make it a good one. – Rappler.com

‘Redshirts’ is available at all Fully Booked outlets.

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Gabriela Lee

Gabriela Lee is a writer, a teacher and an amateur fangirl. She loves reading and writing children’s and young adult fiction, speculative fiction and any story that features a time-travelling madman in a box. Her fiction and poetry have been published in the Philippines, Singapore and the United States. She currently teaches at the University of the Philippines. You can find her online at http://about.me/gabrielalee.


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