Oh boy. Let me say this first before the hordes of Scalzi-enthusiasts come and stone me. I don’t blindly adore John Sclazi. I’ve only read Old Man’s War and while it was a fun and quick read, the characters were so shallow that I can’t say I find Scalzi to be a great writer and the book didn’t leave a whole lot of impression. But there is potential. Here’s the second thing: I’ve never watched Star Trek or any of the movies/TV shows/spin-offs. I have seen an occasional episode so I know enough to recognize a redshirt when I see one.
The reason I picked up the book in the first place was Luke Burrage’s podcast review (there’s spoilers but the review is really great!). And if you don’t want to read what comes now, you might as well listen to Luke’s review. Because I agree with it wholeheartedly.
published: Tor, June 2012
my rating: 3,5/10
first sentence: From the top of the large boulder he sat on, Ensign tom Davis looked across the expanse of the cave toward Captain Lucius Abernathy, Science Officer Q’eeng and Chief Engineer Paul West perched on a second, larger boulder, and though, Well, this sucks.
Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, and Andrew is thrilled all the more to be assigned to the ship’s Xenobiology laboratory. Life couldn’t be better… until Andrew begins to pick up on the fact that (1) every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces, (2) the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations, and (3) at least one low-ranked crew member is, sadly, always killed. Not surprisingly, a great deal of energy below decks is expended on avoiding, at all costs, being assigned to an Away Mission. Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is… and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.
A “redshirt” is a stock character in fiction who dies soon after being introduced. The term originates with fans of Star Trek (1966–1969), from the red shirts worn by Starfleet security officers who frequently die during episodes. Redshirt deaths are often used to dramatize the potential peril that the main characters face.
Andy Dahl may be a redshirt but in this book he’s our protagonist. Not that that means a lot. He is the one we follow as he notices that things are weird. His group of friends – who are all similarly-named (Dahl and Duvall, Hanson and Hester) and have so little personality that it’s hard to tell them apart at all – are told by another crew member what the deal is. As somebody who knows the Star Trek trope of killing off the poor fucker in the red shirt to create some action and up the stakes, we of course already know what’s going on. It would have been nice to have our main character figure it out too. But no, he is told by someone smarter, but not much more three-dimensional than him (at least then.).
Now we know the author is bad with characters. That’s why I found Old Man’s War not at all memorable and don’t remember a single name, because I didn’t feel an emotional attachment to the characters. I didn’t even dislike anyone, they didn’t have enough to them for that. I literally nothinged them. And I nothing every character in this book. Jenkins is the only one with some meat to him – character-wise, that is. And while I say that, he is still a very, very flat character.
Here’s the thing though: It becomes clearer towards the end of the story that the bad writing is on purpose. It’s impossible to talk about this without spoiling so I’ll be vague. The characters realize they are the redshirts and, naturally, try to escape their fate of useless death. They are also told why they are redshirts and that this implies them having little backstory and next to no personality or reason for existence… phew, I hope that was vague enough. You get the idea, though. There is a reason why the characters and the dialogue are so bad.
Still, I cringed at the irony of a character with no personality at all calling another character (who she’s talked to for one minute) “not hugely full of personality”. WTF? That happens in the first dialogue between Dahl and Duvall which is not only painfully badly written (everything ends in “Dahl said” or “Duval said” – you learn in elementary school not to do that) but also just not funny. I thought Scalzi would be playing with the tropes and clichés of the genre, poke fun at the Enterprise – in a clever way. What he does is just give us a boring story that’s been done better many times and to top it off, it is incredibly badly written. If this were his first novel, I doubt he would make it to become a bestseller. Instead of writing a satire or a smart and funny book about what it’s like to be the redshirt, the token guy who has to die to show how dangerous this planet or that alien species are, and to break the cliché by giving these characters personality and a life of their own, he spits the trope right back in our faces. Example: The characters’ entire “backstory” can be (and is) wrapped up by another character quite accurately:
You were a novitiate to an alien religion. You’re a scoundrel who’s made enemies across the fleet. You’re the son of one of the richest men in the universe. You left your last ship after having an altercation with your superior officer, and you’re sleeping with Kerensky now.
You may think this is just a summary of big events that have an impact on all of their lives. It’s not. This is all the information we’re given, none of which actually defines any of their actions or how other people react to them. Nobody treats Hanson different for being rich, Dahl’s knowledge of some alien language has no impact or importance on anything in the plot and the rest ist really just tropes so these guys have more than a name to them. But not much.
Additionally, the book is made up entirely of dialogue. There are absolutely no descriptions. Now even for a Star Trek fan I can imagine that’s annoying. How are we supposed to know what anything looks like, especially the characters. And their “personalities” are interchangable (even males and females don’t have any difference in their behaviour, mannerism or looks). We don’t know what they look like, most of the time we only get their last names, not even being able to tell if a woman or a man is talking. Ending every single line of dialogue with “xyz said” is also not helpful. When the entire group of redshirts were having a one-liner discussion going back and forth, I just skipped the “xyz said” and just inserted “yeah that guy or whatever” because it really didn’t make a difference. Really, John Scalzi, why should I care if these cardboard figures get killed off, anyway?
The novel does have some redeeming qualities to it, though. Towards the very end of the main story, it does get a little better. Kerensky, while his only trait is being quite silly, at least stands out as a character in the dialogue while the others are just a big, mushy group talking at each other, trying to be funny and failing. And surprisingly, we are introduced to a few characters shortly before the end that we actually almost care about. The three codas that come after the main plot, while not groundbreaking or filled with better dialogue, are much better written. You can tell that Scalzi is actually like one of his own characters – not a bad writer, just producing bad writing.
He’s being very meta about all of this. But being meta does not excuse you from being a decent writer. And we know Scalzi (while not great with characters) can do better than this. I got the feeling that he was just too lazy. He knows his name will sell no matter what. So why not just poop out a NaNoWriMo novel and publish it however it comes out? The fact that it’s a bestseller speaks for itself. So was the painful and boring journey through this short book worth it? No. I will not buy any more Scalzi books. I’ll read the ones I already own but I’m not throwing any more of my money towards this guy. I don’t like being made fun of by authors. Fuck with somebody else, you should respect your readers more than that!
THE GOOD: The idea of writing a story about redshirts is good. The idea of the meta-element is excellent (if not original) and the codas are actually well written.
THE BAD: Basic language, cardboard characters, bad writing, clichéd dialogue and not very funny. Also, I feel (as the Germans would say “verarscht”) like he’s laughing his ass off about me for getting away with this and making money off his readers’ hopes.
THE VERDICT: Has been done much better in other stories (listen to Luke’s podcast, he talks about this in detail) and other than make me angry, this book really didn’t do much for me. No food for thought, no memorably characters. And a cheesy ending.