by John Scalzi
When I bought this book, which is loudly proclaimed on its cover as a NYT bestseller that is a joy to read, with gushing blurbs from two authors I respect quite a lot (Joe Hill and Patrick Rothfuss), I was excited; but the clerk who sold it to me said something that cooled my ardor a little. “Yeah, I didn’t love this as much as everyone else did. I don’t really know why.” As I had been unaware that there was such a lot of buzz about this book, I was a bit puzzled by the comment; but now that I have read it, I completely agree.
I didn’t love this as much as everyone else did.
There’s something about John Scalzi’s writing that doesn’t speak to me. I don’t know what it is. I’ve read a book of his non-fiction, excerpts from his blog; and now I’ve read this Star Trek-themed novel; and I didn’t love either one. I feel like Scalzi is similar to what I’ve encountered in a lot of science fiction writers: their ideas are brilliant, but their prose leaves something to be desired. It makes for disappointing reading experiences, because I get excited about the book based on the concept, but then reading it leaves me a bit cold. Though it is entirely possible that this is my own subjective response, and not something that anyone else would experience. On the other hand: there are some real holes in the plot of this one, and even the short pieces at the end, the three codas that come after the main novel, don’t really spackle those holes in very well.
The idea behind this book is great. For those who know Star Trek, I don’t even need to explain it: the book is written from the point of view of the Redshirts. For those who don’t know the original Star Trek series, I wouldn’t recommend the book; it makes far too many inside jokes and references for those not in the know (And maybe, considering how much we nerds love a good reference, that’s really the appeal of the book.). But essentially, imagine you were a low-ranking officer on a starship sailing grandly through the universe, going where no man has ever gone before, and you realized that every time the command crew went down to a planet’s surface, or over to a ship that had sent out a distress call, somebody died: and it was always, always, somebody like you. The low-ranking officer. The captain and First Officer, the head of engineering and the ship’s doctor – they always went on the away missions, always got in danger, sometimes got hurt; but they never died. It was always somebody else that caught the laser blast or the alien monster attack or stood too close to the explosion. Once you realized that, what would you do? And if you were assigned to the ship that had this record of chewing up and swallowing people just like you – how would you handle it?
That’s a great set up. And the first half of the book, while the main characters are figuring it out while trying to stay alive, really is hilarious. It’s when they figure out the answer that this book lost me. The last half of the book, when they find a way to solve the problem and their own lives, just kept going downhill. There are some funny moments, particularly when crew members meet their own doppelgangers from another universe, but the basic concept really didn’t work. It’s too unnecessarily complicated: the book is clearly, obviously a reference to Star Trek, and Scalzi goes away from that, connecting it to a different fictional universe based on Star Trek but not Star Trek. That was a mistake. The way the Redshirts get their way was too deus ex machina for me, even though that’s the point of it; I would have preferred an actually clever solution, and I didn’t think that was it. And then the protagonist’s final realization of the layers of truth and fiction in his universe was far too precious for me. I feel like Scalzi was a stage magician waving his hands to distract me from seeing how the trick worked – but really, it wasn’t that great a trick. The same went for the codas, which were not as clever as I think they were intended to be, and just ended up annoying me more than the book itself did.
So I don’t know if it was just this book, which suffered from being an idea that is brilliant but probably too difficult to pull off well; or if it’s John Scalzi’s writing; or if it’s just me. At any rate, I didn’t think much of it.