I first heard about Redshirts when John Scalzi read a preview of it at a signing I went to (for Fuzzy Nation, which I still haven't read). The reading was hilarious (he also read the first sentence from The Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue).
I went into this book very excited given all the hype and the song (here) and it quickly delivered. The first half of the book is amazing and you start wondering how the strange events on board the spaceship Intrepid can be happening. Then, things fall flat... You're given an explanation for how things are working and you take it with a grain of salt. It is weird and out-there, but many authors tend to provide a few of these and then completely surprise you with 'the answer' at the end. You only get to connect all the dots moments before the revelation and are left completely satisfied. This book is not like that.
Does that mean this is a bad book? Far from it! The book is hilarious and has some great moments, even the ending is great. However, I kinda wish it was different. The 'big reveal' never feels like it happened and I was left disappointed at such an 'obvious' solution. It's not quite like a Deus Ex Machina, where a powerful outside force suddenly appears and makes everything right, but it feels the same way. Could I have come up with a better way to tell the story? Of course not, but it just didn't meet my expectations.
I would say the plot has two main parts. First, there is a classic space opera which channels Star Trek and other classic TV shows. The crew of the Intrepid go on adventures to explore the galaxy, answer distress calls, etc. It's very fun, especially when the main characters catch on to the unique circumstances behind away missions. Namely, someone always dies on these missions and it is always one of the non-essential crew: the redshirts. The captain, chief officers, and most liutenants are immune to such deaths and though they can be injured, they always miraculously recover in a manner of days. The rest of the crew knows this and hides in terror when an away mission is announced.
The mystery of why that happens and how it can be solved is the second main part of the plot, and unforetunately it is dissapointing. The book goes all meta-fiction at this part, which breaks from the universe created in the first part. It feels like rather than considering a viable, internally-consistent explanation for what's going on with the ship, Scalzi ops for the quick and dirty solution.
SPOILER START Basically, i's due to a bad TV show that influences the ship and its universe. The characters then travel to Burbank near Los Angeles to shut down the program. SPOILER END
The book ends with 3 codas that are related to the second part of the plot. They're somewhat more emotionally charged than the rest of the book. Overall, it feels like book is combining 2-3 stories, but achieving only partial success.
There are several characters throughout the book, but we really focus on only one: Ensign Andy Dahl. He's on the Intrepid and has some interesting skills and backstory that we think will be critical to the story at some point. He feels similar to the main character from Old Man's War in terms of how he approaches problems and the sort of snarky attitude at times. The rest of the characters are a bit bland, though some have their moments to shine. I liked some of the banter and humor between the characters, but other than that they don't stand out that much. The book is really all about the main character and, more importantly, the idea behind the story.
Setting / World Building
The book has two main settings, like it has 2 parts to the plot. The first is neat and space-y, if a bit generic. It's set in the far future, aboard an exploration space ship- the Intrepid. It screams 'Star Trek' all over it. The second setting is far more mundane and takes place in the latter half of the book. The 'down-to-Earth' nature of that setting is jarring when compared to the Intrepid. For someone who likes the intricate details of fictional worlds, that was a bit disappointing.
So in the end, did I like the book? Sure, but not as much as I expected. The story was pretty funny and perfectly in line with what I expect from Scalzi. However, I was very disappointed at the turn of events in the plot. I honestly did not expect such meta-fiction in the book. If you are a fan of Star Trek, enjoy comedy, and like to read a book that pokes fun at itself, then you will surely enjoy the book. It was a clever story, but I prefer it when the fiction stays in the book and doesn't call attenttion to itself, if that makes any sense.