Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, by John Scalzi*, focuses on new crew members aboard the Universal Union flagship Intrepid who begin to notice alarming patterns that determine how long they will survive. The story follows Ensign Andrew Dahl, newly assigned junior scientist, and his friends. They slowly come to realize that there is a pattern to life and death on the ship and this pattern does not bode well for their continued existence. Dahl is determined to figure out the mystery before his next away mission becomes his last. This is not a simple, straightforward story however; this is a work of metafiction that incorporates comments on the nature of narrative itself.
The term “red shirt” references a stock character in fiction who dies soon after being introduced. These character deaths serve the purpose to advance the plot and/or highlight the peril faced by the main characters. The characters are almost cardboard cut-outs without much depth or complexity. The original Star Trek (1966-1969) series first introduced the concept when unnamed security personnel or engineers who accompanied the officers on away missions (missions by the crew away from the ship) frequently died. The standard uniform for these crewmen was a distinctive red shirt. As reported on Wikipedia, 73% of the deaths on the original Star Trek series were ensigns wearing red shirts.
It is a tribute to the effect that Star Trek has on our cultural consciousness that the term “red shirt,” which is never mentioned in the show, endures. It has appeared in a variety of other programs, including Southpark, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Warehouse 13, and in the script of Lost. In Scott Adams’s long-running comic strip Dilbert characters have recently switched from the traditional business coat-and-tie apparel to color-coded polo shirts: Guess which characters wear red.
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms defines metafiction as follows:
Fiction about fiction; or more especially a kind of fiction that openly comments on its own fictional status. In a weak sense, many modern novels about novelists having problems writing their novels may be called metafictional in so far as they discuss the nature of fiction; but the term is normally used for works that involve a significant degree of self consciousness about themselves as fictions, in ways that go beyond occasional apologetic addresses to the reader. (Baldick, 2001).
The characteristics of metafiction can vary from work-to-work. In some works the author may use a technique that creates a fictional author. It is possible for authors to create other fictional works and even biographies of other fictional writers within an overarching text. The author may create fictional characters or a fictional work as if they were part of history to add authenticity to the work or even instill confusion in the mind of the reader. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman, is a good example of this type of metafiction. Goldman invents S. Morgenstern as the fictional author of the novel, inserts himself as a young boy listening to his father read the story and as an adult author adapting the original book so it would appeal to his young son. The story is set in the fictional country of Florin, which Goldman treats as real. (He even claims in the story that his father emigrated from Florin to America.)
Scalzi creates this type of fictional author in Nick Weinstein, the head writer for Chronicles of the Intrepid, who is suffering an existential crisis, and also writer’s block, because he learned that the characters he writes about in the series are real people. His story appears in the latter part of the main narrative and, more prominently, in the codas:
Hello, Internet. There isn’t any good way to start this, so let me just jump right in. So, I am a scriptwriter for a television show on a major network who just found out that the people he’s been making up in his head (and killing off at the rate of about one an episode) are actually real. Now I have writer’s block, I don’t know how to solve it, and if I don’t figure it out soon, I’m going to get fired. Help me.
Weinstein is written as both the author of the chronicles and a part of the narrative; he needs to address this issue before the story can continue. He draws in the reader with the blog, and the typical blog reader-responses, to his plea for help. The studio where the show is shot, the restaurants and the clubs where the characters congregate, and even the beach in Santa Monica, have a basis in reality, although they are not places readers could ever visit. Like Goldman’s creation of Florin, they are described in a way that “seems” real.
Metafiction can also be used by an author to comment on the nature of fiction. In doing so, the author acknowledges that what he or she is writing is fiction, but the author is giving the reader direction in contemplating and deciphering what is already known about the topic or simply the conventions of writing and literature. Readers are then trying to construct their own meaning based on prior knowledge of literary works and conventions for the new text. This type of writing can be seen in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, particularly in Witches Abroad where Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat fight against narrative expectations inherent in fairy tales. The characters discuss the narrative, or story, as a force acting on their lives and they actively plot to overcome it.
In Redshirts, Scalzi has the “new ensigns” assigned to the Intrepid realize that their lives are being controlled by an outside force—the narrative written by Weinstein in The Chronicles of the Intrepid. The fictional reality of the television show intrudes on the characters’ reality and warps it to suit the narrative design. The “redshirts” are not fictional in of themselves, but their reality is compromised by events on the show.
“The Narrative”— Jenkins’ term for when the television show crept into their lives, swept away rationality and physical laws and made people know, do and say things they wouldn’t otherwise. You’ve had it happen to you already, Jenkins had said. A fact you didn’t know before just pops into your head. You make a decision or take an action you wouldn’t otherwise make. It’s like an irresistible impulse because it is an irresistible impulse— your will isn’t your own, you’re just a pawn for a writer to move around.
This device allows Scalzi to have a little fun with the readers and permits him to add his thoughts about what he, as a writer, does to characters in a new way. But at the same time, the character of Jenkins suggests the idea that the implied author of the show (later revealed to be Weinstein) is just making it up as he goes along. Which, of course, is true of every writer of fiction.
The biggest part of this problem, though, for the “redshirt” characters is not that the show exists: The biggest complaint of the redshirts is that the show is poorly written. When the characters finally confront Weinstein, they explain this issue to him:
You’ve got us living in a universe where there are killer robots with harpoons walking around a space station, because, sure, it makes perfect sense to have harpoon-launching killer robots.”
“Or ice sharks,” Duvall said.
“Or Borgovian Land Worms,” Hanson said.
This confrontation leads to Weinstein’s writer’s block, which leads into the story codas, which reinforce the need for artistic integrity. All three of the codas are written in a different style (first, second, and third person respectively) but work to bring the story to a fitting conclusion.
As with most types of metafiction, how much a reader enjoys a story will depend upon how familiar he/she is with the genre involved. Readers of The Princess Bride and Witches Abroad, for example, will enjoy the metafition if they are familiar with fairy tales just like readers of another work of metafiction, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, will enjoy the story more if they are familiar with Hamlet. If a reader enjoys science fiction, and Star Trek in particular, he/she will get a lot of the in-jokes and punch lines.
It is also clear how much Scalzi loves science fiction television shows. (He was a writer/creative consultant on Stargate: Universe.) The homage he pays to shows like Star Trek in the narrative make it enjoyable to read. And, if you are a fan of the series, you just may find yourself binge watching it after finishing the novel: I know that I did.
*In John Scalzi’s author introduction on Amazon, it states: “You can get to his blog by typing the word “Whatever” into Google. No, seriously, try it.”
Baldick, C. (2001). The concise Oxford dictionary of literary terms. 2nd ed. NY, NY: Oxford UP. Print.