The story within a story (or play within a play), where fictional characters interact with people in the real world is not new or unique. Shakespeare used it and as Scalzi himself bears witness, there have been a lot of movies, plays, books, and so on that have used one or another variations on this theme. I don’t have a problem with that. In fact, I enjoyed his willingness to explore a classic form and was curious to see where he would go with it. I also appreciated his acknowledging the other authors and script writers who have used some version of it.
The first portion of the story was fun. The characters gradually realize they are part of a TV series. This isn’t a spoiler; the book’s title refers to the red-shirted characters on Star Trek who were always killed before the first commercial break. In Redshirts, after discovering they are characters in cable sci fi series, the characters slide into the real world. Even though it was obvious from the beginning what was happening, it didn’t matter because what the author was doing was less important than how he did it. John Scalzi has a unique and quirky perspective that make his books interesting and highly entertaining. At least for the first half of the book, Redshirts was no exception.
Then the codas began. The codas are rather like alternate endings, but also like an extra piece of story, tangentially related to the main storyline. It’s an interesting idea that didn’t really work. At least, it didn’t work for me.
The first coda explores the mind of a writer in the throes of writer’s block and was mildly interesting. Not exactly gripping, but not bad. When the first coda drew to a close and the second began, I realized I was restless and finding it difficult to stay focused. The final coda felt like a postscript and held little interest. Worse, the book felt like a writing exercise. Interesting in a technical way if you happen to be a writer, I nonetheless found myself muttering “Okay already, I got it. You made your point.”
I listened through to the end, though I kept drifting and had to remind myself to pay attention as the book plodded to its conclusion.
Less would have been more. The basic idea was good — cute and clever. In its audiobook version, it was helped along by a skilled narrator. But there wasn’t enough plot to go the distance, like a movie that runs out of script 20 minutes before it runs out of film. The story was too thin to support its length. The first half could easily have stood on its own as a novella.
By the end, I had lost track of the characters and plot. Too many endings, characters appearing and disappearing with blinding speed. A score card might have helped but ultimately, I didn’t care.
I’ve read worse books … but John Scalzi has written much better.