By Phil Plait | June 5, 2012 10:30 am

[tl;dr: Go buy this book and read it.]

I don’t read as much as I used to, which makes me unhappy. I love to read, but somehow finding the time this past year has been difficult. And I prefer to read novels in big chunks, not snatching a few pages here and there when I can. I want to devote the kind of quality time a good novel deserves, but finding that time has been increasingly difficult.

So when I say that I read John Scalzi’s novel "Redshirts" over the course of two days — blowing off a great deal of work to do so — I hope that conveys just how good this book is.

OK, full disclosure: John is a friend of mine; we’ve known each other for a few years after first meeting in 2008. But one of the reasons I wanted to meet him in the first place is because his writing is so damn good. It speaks of an intelligence and understanding of how to communicate that’s pretty rare. I also tend to agree with him on most issues, so obviously he’s a man of fine taste and subtle reasoning.

John writes a blog called Whatever, and a little while back he mentioned that his new book "Redshirts" was finally done. Having read his amazing "Old Man’s War" science fiction series, I immediately pestered him for an advance copy. Probably more in an effort to keep me from endlessly annoying him than out of friendship, he sent me one.

And I sat down and did something I almost never, ever do: I read the whole thing through. I mean it; I found myself voraciously consuming the book. It’s a science fiction novel that in many ways is a parody of "Star Trek", but to think it’s just that is pretty unfair. It’s even true to say it’s a parody of the entire SF TV genre, but again, that falls well short of what this novel is. Certainly, you can read it that way, but you’d be shortchanging yourself if you did. Scalzi dabbles in a lot of philosophical ideas here, using a Star Trek-like framework to ask questions about the nature of what fiction is, and what writers do. Even, I dare say, the nature of existence.

Not that "Redshirts" is some ponderous tome future schoolchildren will dread reading in literature class. It’s a light, funny, and in some cases even breezy read. That’s Scalzi’s style. His books are fun, even while they tackle serious issues (his blog is a paradigm of that style of writing).

I’m not going to give you any details about the plot of the book, though. I loathe spoilers, preferring instead to be surprised at what I find when I read a book (or watch a movie/TV show). I will point out, though, that Scalzi tackles an issue I used to think about when I was younger (and still do sometimes): does a TV show exist in the history of the fictional TV show universe?

In other words, imagine The Doctor uses the TARDIS to travel to our present day. If he turns on a TV, will he be able to watch "Doctor Who" on the BBC? It’s a weird thought, isn’t it? In the fictional universe of any TV show, the TV show itself must not have happened, or else the characters in the TV show would know it. Wouldn’t it be odd if the future Star Trek timeline actually unfolded (I know, a lot of it can’t now because it’s already in the past and didn’t happen, but bear with me) the real Captain Kirk, in the 23rd century, found out his exact life was broadcast on TV and he was played by some guy named William Shatner (and later, Chris Pine)?

It’s fun to think about, and Scalzi tackles this problem in "Redshirts". His solution to the problem is fascinating, and had never occurred to me. And my favorite thing when reading a novel is being surprised… and my favorite thing after reading a novel is finding myself thinking about it long after I’m done reading it.

OK, I’m done blathering about it. Just go and buy "Redshirts" because it’s really really good.

And who knows? It may just save your life. You certainly don’t want to wind up like this guy:

Related Posts:

Tales of DragonCon: Scalzification
There Huge again
The call of duty

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, SciFi, TV/Movies

Comments (39)

  1. Zathras

    Zathras want this book!!!!!

    I read “Old Man’s War” about a year ago… SF I’ve read in a while.
    Also I seem to remember that there was a fan fiction story from many years ago where the Star Trek TOS folks got stuck in a Space-Time Anomoly ™ and ended up on the set of the television show. There was also a later companion/conjugate story of the television actors ending up on the “real” Enterprise.

  2. Chris

    Riverside, Iowa is known as the “Future Birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk March 22, 2228” I just wonder how many people will flock there to give birth on that day. Although who knows what will happen 200 years from now and even if they’ll still remember the original Star Trek TV series.

    Stargate sort of addressed this possibility when they invented Wormhole X-treme as a way the government would create plausible deniability in case details about the actual Stargate was ever leaked to the public.

  3. Sam H


    Phil Plait – I can scarcely believe this myself, but if what this Time news article is telling me is legit, it looks like the National Reconaissance Office – responsible for building spy satellites – just gave NASA not one but TWO spare space telescopes, once intended for spying – both of them with mirrors intact, and of a slightly larger aperture than Hubble. There's no cameras or any instruments, and they require retrofitting, but BUT BUT-

    They gave them away for FREE.

    And you can come to Calgary and punch me if I’m making this up:,8599,2116436,00.html?iid=tsmodule

    And you, a former Hubble astronomer, would have a better idea of what this could mean than I ever could, even though I’m shaking as I type this. I MEAN THEY LITERALLY JUST GAVE AWAY TWO NEW HUBBLES FOR FREE……;LAKSJDF;AHJSDFLKASLDHGJHALSD;JKG
    *insert inexpressible disbelieving excitement, and then some*

  4. Carey

    There is a Kindle edition, therefore I will purchase it.

  5. Funny, I saw this post and thought it was about today’s shirt of the day:

  6. TMB

    In… Rememberence of the Daleks, maybe? Some pretty awful dalek story from the McCoy years… it’s 1963, and they end a shot with a TV in the frame that’s about to show the first episode of An Unearthly Child.

  7. Chris Winter

    This looks like a book I will read, at some point. But…

    Totally OT: Searching idly for red-shirt images, I stumbled across these posters.

    I like the homeless Klingon best: “For food, I will refrain from killing you.”

  8. I had actually been thinking about doing a self-published book about Redshirts myself. It was going to be an illustrated abecedarian book in the style of Edward Gorey’s “The Gashlycrumb Tinies.” It was basically going to be chronicling the many ways Redshirts meet their gruesome ends, like with:

    “A is for Adams, Lost in a Beam.
    B is for Bennet who died in his Dreams.”

    That sort of thing. Even did the first picture before I had to stop to get a proper job.

    Now, though… I aint going to try and compete with John Scalzi. No way, no how. I’ll move on to other projects.

    Oh, well. I was unsure of the legality anyway. I wasn’t going to used established characters or the word “Enterprise” or even show the ship in any detail.

  9. Doctor Who winked in the direction of the “does the TV series exist in the TV series’ own world” once, back in the Seventh Doctor days, with a closing shot of a television broadcasting the premiere episode of… and they cut off before saying it, but if you know the date the episode was set in, then you get the in-joke.

    In other news, I will be buying this book forthwith.

    (Edit: Ninja’d by TMB. Heh.)

  10. I’m surprised you read the text version. I was sure that you’d listen to the audiobook, read by Wil Wheaton.

  11. Darn, TMB and GreyDuck beat me to it.

  12. drow

    in an infinite universe, this happening is inevitable.

  13. Daniel J. Andrews

    Years back, I had a book of Star Trek stories (I had all the James Blish tv stories too), and one of the non-tv stories had the actors of Star Trek actually beamed over to the universe where Star Trek actually existed. There they had to pretend they were the real…uhhhh…McCoys(?groan?) and save the ship or whatever it was they did. There was one throwaway line in there at the end where they wondered how the real Kirk and others managed to adapt to the strange circumstances of finding their real life was a tv show.

  14. EJ

    In Spaceballs, don’t they rent the movie they’re in at one point to find out what they should do next?

  15. Matt B.

    Aw, man! I wrote a story in high school 20 years ago in which the main character was reading the story he was in. The story even explains the oddity with Star Trek as an example. I wish I’d had any ability at all to publish things (still do wish, in fact).

    EtA: Oh, EJ, that’s probably where I got the idea. BTW, I think that scene was possible only because Spaceballs was “filmed” on video tape to begin with, so they didn’t have to call everyone back months later to do that one bit.

  16. Chip

    bought and downloaded!

  17. BCFD36

    Is it bad that I know which episode that guy in the picture died in?

    My wife and kids are right. I AM a nerd.

    D. Scruggs
    Captain, Boulder Creek Fire
    Sr. Sw. Eng., Lockheed Martin

  18. Mike

    You don’t have to tell me twice. I just finished Ghost Brigades, which I started right after I finished Old Man’s War. Perfect timing on this.

    KSR’s 2312 has me at the moment but as soon as that’s done, Redshirts it is. Scalzi’s very probably my favourite living sci-fi author, and pretty high in the running for all-time.


  19. Nemo

    @Zathras #1:

    There was also a later companion/conjugate story of the television actors ending up on the “real” Enterprise.

    I’ve seen that, it was called “Galaxy Quest”.

  20. Matt B.

    It’s funny that Phil mentioned PEZ yesterday, and Star Trek today, since I have a complete set of original-cast Star Trek PEZ dispensers.

    And I forgot to mention: Phil, I know how you feel. I haven’t had time to read a novel in over two years.

  21. Moret

    Oh man, no Kindle version available? I won’t have trees killed to read about red shirts killed. 8)

  22. JB of Brisbane

    In the UFO episode “Mindbender”, Commander Straker is affected by the alien device and begins hallucinating that he and his SHADO colleagues are actors on a TV show (albeit with different names from the actual actors), and the sets for all the interior scenes are shown.

  23. Ben

    Robert Heinlein wrote a book called Number of the Beast where the characters travelled to other universes, many which were storys from the characters point of view.

  24. Argh. Another ebook selling for more than the hardcover.

    If I buy it, I’m supporting the publishers in their insane belief that they can charge this much for an ebook. But if I buy the hardcover, I have to pay for shipping, wait for it to arrive, and then it’s less convenient to carry around than the ebook. Dilemma.

  25. Kimpatsu

    “In other words, imagine The Doctor uses the TARDIS to travel to our present day. If he turns on a TV, will he be able to watch “Doctor Who” on the BBC?”
    In Remembrance of the Daleks, the 7th Doctor crosses his own timeline in an adventure that takes place shortly after the events of an Unearthly Child, and a TV in the corner announces that the latest episode of the new hit show will be starting soon, a SF drama called “Doctor…” /Hardcut/

  26. Hypocee

    Heinlein’s The Cat Who Walks through Walls – the protagonists recruit various characters who are fictional in the initial timeline, and end on a harangue against the author. Trippy stuff.

  27. Ell

    Nick Johnson:

    If you’re paying more for the ebook than the hardcover, you’re shopping in the *wrong* place.

  28. Godbeam

    Red Dwarf did a recent plot involving the characters discovering they were all part of a fictional show. I seem to remember them writing themselves out of situations. Nice idea, but not a funny episode.

  29. Tony

    Just read a headline stating that the great Ray Bradbury has passed away. We lost a true science fiction icon today.

  30. Chris Winter

    Indeed, Tony. Not only a science-fiction icon, but a great inspirational speaker and a pioneer advocate of livable communities. IIRC he lived in a Latino neighborhood of Los Angeles since he arrived there from the midwest.

    Probably the best obituary comes from the newspaper of his home town:,0,5622415.story

    President Obama issued a statement, but the URL for that didn’t work when I tried it.

  31. Eleri

    “does a TV show exist in the history of the fictional TV show universe?”

    *chuckle* This made me think of Myst Online: Uru Live- Where (if you’re into the mythos) Uru takes place real world-real time, and the Myst games are based on the original journals that were shared with Cyan Worlds (makers of the games) by the DRC (people exploring the lost underground civilization)

  32. Wayne Robinson

    I have just finished reading ‘Redshirts’. Absolutely brilliant. 5 stars.

    Now could someone just tell me WTF it was about?

  33. richie

    There is a kindle version. But due to localisation, I can’t read it until NOVEMBER.

    Would Scalzi forgive me if I got a pirated version now, and then bought the legit version later? Because hearing the hype and being denied like that by Amazon has got me in a very villanish mood.

  34. Pat Hoppe

    For those of you in the Audible universe, Redshirts is available for download, read by ….. Wil Wheaton. How can you lose?

  35. JeremyC

    Sounds like a pretty standard reciproverse excluson-type event.

  36. Nigel Depledge

    @ Jeremy C (35) –
    I thought the reciproverse-exclusion was a tense formation described in Dr Dan Streetmentioner’s Time Traveller’s Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations.

    Is it, or not really?

  37. mike burkhart

    Yes if you re wearing a red shirt in Star Trek and your name is not Scotty you will die (altho Scotty was killed by the probe Nomad and then brought back to lifeby it ) this was a runing thing in Star Trek. By the way on the site Grudge Match they did :Red shirted ensins (Star Trek) vs Stormtropers (Star Wars) The Stormtoropers wiped them out easly.


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