In geek parlance, "red shirt" is a reference to red-uniformed Star Trek officers who frequently die during episodes1. They basically represent the writer's ploy to allow Kirk and McCoy to display grandstanding emotions (and Spock to show a lack thereof). I don't know who coined the notion or where (or if the the show intentionally employed this strategy), but 5 minutes of comprehensive research on the internets reveals a 1985 Star Trek novel called Killing Time, in which a character opines "you don't want to wear a red shirt on landing-party duty" (so sez Wikipedia2). That's the earliest reference I could find, but I'm sure this is something that the show's obsessive fanbase has been remarking on since the 1970s. It's a meme that has been frequently referenced and parodied throughout the years. The most obvious is in the movie Galaxy Quest, where the character of Guy Fleegman, "Crewman Number Six", fears for his life due to his character's expendable nature (fortunately, this parody inverts the meme, allowing him to survive). There is even a grand tradition amongst some SF authors to "reward" fans of their work by naming a character after them, then killing them (for example: David Weber).
All of which is to say that the concept behind John Scalzi's latest novel Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas isn't exactly a new one. It is, perhaps, the most thorough deconstruction of the trope - most others are mere references, homages, or simple skits on the matter - but I'm not entirely sure how I feel about that. Fortunately, Scalzi is a talented author who knows how to turn the page. Indeed, I finished the book in a mere two sittings. Not quite a record, but close. And it's a solid story, filled with typical Scalzian characters and their snappy dialogue, with a some clever ideas thrown in for good measure. It didn't take me long to become attached to the characters, at which point my over-analysis of the title faded away and I devoured the rest of the book.
The general premise of the novel is that a bunch of characters on a Star-Trek-like ship recognize that people who get roped into away-missions with high profile members of the crew tend to end up dead. Essentially, the redshirts recognize their role in the show, and try to fight back. This stuff manifests itself in a number of ways. One of my favorites being "the box", a magical device used whenever the characters run into an impossible problem. They simply feed the problem into the box, and then when it's dramatically appropriate, it spits out an answer. It's a pretty funny take on Star Trek writers' tendency to tech the tech.
It's a fun book, perhaps more comedy than SF, though fans of Star Trek will probably enjoy it. I'm not entirely sure how well executed some of the mechanics of this whole premise is... For instance, it's not entirely clear when the characters are "on screen" as it were. One of our redshirts speculates that there's a "narrative", you see, and that if you can avoid the narrative, you can avoid an untimely death. There's even a funny sequences meant to illustrate how ridiculous commercial breaks are, but again, the mechanics of this aren't entirely clear. Of course, in an exercise that is so self-aware and meta, that's sorta the point. The TV show these characters are stuck in is clearly pretty bad, so of course a lot of this stuff doesn't make sense... and that's part of the fun of it all... but you could also argue that it's a bit of a cop out. Personally, I feel like such things are worthwhile if they're done well, and for the most part, everything here works even if it doesn't precisely fit.
The story proper is quite entertaining and fun, but it should be noted that it pretty much ends about 2/3 of the way through the novel. The remaining 100 pages or so consist of the sub-titular Three Codas. I wasn't quite sure what to make of this at first. It wasn't really surprising to see the story end when it did, except insofar as I already knew there was still 100 pages or so left. Scalzi even manages to extend the self-referential meta elements beyond the simple redshirt notion, though it's exactly what you'd think when you think about the premise. Anyway, the three short stories are all related to the main narrative, touching on side characters or concepts here and there. The first coda comes off as a little slight, but it ends up being pretty effective. The second coda is actually pretty meaningful and interesting, adding a depth and seriousness the rest of the novel was missing. The third coda builds on that heft while still managing to end on a clever but positive note. There's something a little gimmicky about the codas - they're written in first, second, and third person, for instance - and I can see how some folks wouldn't appreciate them in general, but I thought they were well done and meaningful.
It's strange. I find that the things I don't like about this book, like the title and the structure, are superficial. These meta aspects (not to be confused with the meta nature of the story itself) trouble me more than the actual contents of the book. I don't quite know what to make of this. The title "Redshirts" does perfectly encapsulate what you're in for, but there's something corny about using a decades-old meme as the title for your book3. Fortunately, the actual contents of the book don't strike me that way, so I ultimately enjoyed the book heartily. I don't know that I would entirely agree with Justin's (very funny and entertaining in itself) review that this is "Spoof Trekkie Fiction: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There is" (an oblique reference to Scalzi's recent controversial and ill-fitting metaphor for life as a video game), but there is a distinct Saturday Night Live skit feeling to the premise of the book. But it's a really well done skit, if that's the case, and I'm generally of the mind that such exercises can be fun if executed well, which this is. In the end, I really enjoyed the book, despite any reservations I may have about the title and structure, and would recommend it to just about anyone.
1 - This appears to impact mostly the original Star Trek series and it should be noted that plenty of blue or gold shirted crewmen die on the series as well. Star Trek: The Next Generation (and later shows) tried to invert the meme by placing its main characters mostly into red shirts themselves. Deaths seem less frequent as well, though there is still the occasional unfortunate mishap, and the poor character is sometimes wearing a red shirt. Star Trek is definitely a show in which The Main Characters Do Everything, so when you see some random dude on the away team, chances are that he's in trouble.
2 - Scalzi actually makes a pretty funny, but obvious, dig at Wikipedia in the book. I don't know why I needed to put this in a footnote, but I always find references to Wikipedia and the internet interesting in works of art.
3 - There appears to be a rash4 of this sort of title. Consider another example: Rule 34 by Charlie Stross (Rule 34 of the internet is: If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions. Its awesome, but kinda lame when you name your book after it).
4 - I have recently established that only two examples are needed in order to qualify as a "rash". Which, since I've identified two different rashes in the past week, means that I'm experiencing a rash of rashes. Gross.