In trying to identify where John Scalzi’s Redshirts went wrong for me as a reader, I should first establish that at some point it was going right, which means owning up to the fact that I went into the book with a certain skepticism–not strong skepticism, because I enjoy Scalzi’s online authorial persona, and because even though I have never been active in Star Trek fandom, I have viewed at least 200 episodes of the series (with the bulk of those being TNG) as well as most of the films–but I did go in with a thin barrier between me and the text, created (as best as I can recall) by some of the reaction to Redshirts winning the Hugo Award for Novel. That skepticism stayed with me through the first few pages, but then it began to fall once Dahl encounters Captain Abernathy in full narrative mode. And then when Dahl goes on his first away mission and comes back and (in chapter five) confronts the rest of the team in the lab, and they explain the “Sacrificial Effect” and the tracking system that helps them avoid away missions, I was fully sucked in, the skepticism gone.
To go further: I really like the way Scalzi sets up the key problems and themes of the novel and Ensign Dahl’s reaction to them as well as the reactions of his fellow new crew members on the Intrepid. This consonance between author (Scalzi) and reader (me) continued on into the meeting with Jenkins (a character who figured out the fictionality of the situation and set up and manages the tracking system) and into the next away mission so that when we reach chapter 12 and have this exchange, it was hitting the sweet spot where metafiction becomes both humorous and creepy:
“Finn turned to Kerensky. “So, what’s the plan?” he asked. “Plan” Kerensky said, and blinked. “If there really is a Narrative, it’s not on him right now,” Dahl said, about Kerensky.
I was even into it when Dahl decides to take action. This response to Jenkins (which comes part way into chapter 13) is fantastic:
”Why me?” Jenkins asked. “Because you know this television show we’re trapped in better than anyone else,” Dahl said. “If there’s a solution or a loophole, you’re the only one who can find it. And soon. Because I don’t want any more of my friends to die because of a hack writer. And that includes you.”
But then, as chapter 13 progresses, things went very wrong.
Scalzi decides to link Dahl’s narrative with the real world–with our world. Star Wars and Star Trek get specifically mentioned. The plan to break the grip of the Narrative involves an intentionally ridiculous method of, naturally, inducing time travel. Characters travel to mid-2000s L.A. and meet their doubles—the actors who play them on the television show. Producers and writers get involved. All the original tension vanishes, but the metafictional aspects that layer on, that, to some extent, raise the stakes instead goes all gooey and referential (but not in a good way).
I don’t think that was the intended effect. I think it’s all supposed to make readers see the characters as more complex and more closely tied to all those involved in the production of the television show they are stuck on. And I believe Scalzi’s overall point is that minor characters have rich, full lives too, and creators and fans shouldn’t be so cavalier about killing off such characters. Death shouldn’t be used as a cheap device to move plot forward. There may also be something about the power of narrative to heal–that seeing other versions of ourselves can help spur us to become better version of ourselves. All correct notions. But I found myself resisting the delivery of them.
The problem is that metafiction doesn’t deepen reality. It creates irreality or surreality. Playing with questions of authorship* points to the ir-realness of authorship and of any attempts to force narrative on the “real” world. Bringing in the “real” world doesn’t make the fictional world seem more real–it shows the artificialness of narrativizing the world and our experiences of it, especially by doing so via fiction.
If Scalzi had confined the “Sacrificial Effect” to the textual world the characters were in and had them find ways to resist (or not) within that world (or even meta-textually above it [but without explicitly brining in the "real" world]), I would have been much more in tune with what he was trying to do. I thought that Scalzi set up an interesting philosophical problem. Then it turned into something very different. That seems to have worked for many readers. It did not work for me.
- Which Scalzi doesn’t do–he plays with notions of authorship but it’s a fictional author within the narrative whose metafictionalness comes in the form of him asking for help from both fictional and nonfictional authors who use metafiction. And, indeed, the only author who responds is a fictional creation of Scalzi’s. In other words, the metafiction stays contained within the world of fiction. The only moment of author-level metafiction may be in the Acknowledgements where Scalzi claims: “Redshirts is not even remotely based on the television show Stargate: Universe. Anyone hoping this is a thinly veiled satire of that particular experience of mine is going to have to be disappointed.” If he is telling the truth, then all my comments in the post above apply; however, if Scalzi is lying here, then the metafictional aspects of Redshirts take on a new dimension and the whole project becomes much more interesting. Successful metafiction is all about finding the right layers and how to apply them to the narrative substrate.