How a not-very-serious Sci-fi novel turned me into a much more serious person

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Thoughts on Redshirts

Redshirts Cover.

Redshirts is not a serious sci-fi novel. Well, it is, but only because it pretends not to be. Like a hipster wearing a side-tilted Abercrombie and Fitch hat, its not-douchey because it is douchey. Or maybe its just douchey, I don’t know. The point is this: Redshirts is contrived in places and unbelievable in other places. But thats okay, because it knows it is, and it wants you to know it is.

Perhaps you’ve gathered this by now, but Redshirts is a bit of a satire. It pokes fun at the serialized, syndicated, spun-off, and rebooted Sci-Fi juggernaut Star Trek. It tells the story of low-ranking peons aboard the Intrepid, the flagship space-vessel of a futuristic human navy. These peons are not the heroic captains of the sci-fi world. These are not the square-jawed men who bravely topple spiral-toothed deathworms the size of aircraft carriers, these are the nameless peons who are consumed within the first few minutes of battle with said spiral-toothed deathworms.

The story is told from the perspective of Ensign Dahl, Dahl is the lowest of the low-ranking peons. Dahl is significantly more intelligent than his dim-witted superiors but struggles to be taken seriously. This slightly narcissistic perspective pervades the personality of the novel, Dahl is far from the only character to echo this sentiment. In fact, this schema of thought pervades the narrative so consistently that I wondered if the author was capable of writing in any other perspective.

If you asked me about this narrow perspective as I passed the half-way point of Redshirts, I would have called it a shortcoming of the book. But as the book entered its final chapters I realized something. I think the author, John Scalzi, is aware of this shortcoming. And I think John Scalzi wanted to make sure I was aware of this shortcoming too. And that’s because John Scalzi intended to overtly accuse me of possessing this shortcoming myself.

And by “me” I specifically mean me, Matthew Larrabee. I think he wrote this book for me. Had I finished the book and found the words “For Matthew Larrabee” on the final page, I would not have been surprised. I was more surprised that I didn’t. Why do I think this? Because the book pretty much says so. I quote:

“Honestly, Matthew, what the fuck are we doing with our lives?

I’ve been talking to your family about you, you know. They love you. They all do. They love you and when you had your accident it was like someone came along and stabbed them in the heart. It is amazing how much love they have for you. But, and again, I can tell you this because you’re me, I can tell they think you need to get your ass in gear. They talk about how you have so many interests, and how you’re waiting for that one thing that will help you achieve your potential. And what I hear is what they won’t say: You need to grow up.

Stop drifting. Stop trying things until you get bored with them. Stop waiting for that one thing. It’s stupid. You’re wasting time. You almost wasted all of your time. You were lucky I was around, but I get the feeling this isn’t something you will get to do twice.

Don’t you blow it either, Matthew. I don’t expect you to know what to do with yourself yet. But I expect you to figure it out. I think that’s a fair request from me, all things considered.

Welcome to your new life Matthew, don’t fuck this one up.”

Suffice to say, reading those words was a proper mind-fuck.

You see, I think the author struggled a lot in his youth. I think he particularly struggled because he perceived that the people around him didn’t take him very seriously. I think he figured out the cause behind this, it was because he didn’t take himself seriously. Scalzi is now a New York Times best-selling author, so I think he is taken just about as seriously as a Science-Fiction writer can be taken.

In the past five years, I have seriously considered careers as a professor, as a novelist, as a musician, as a script writer, as a filmographer, as a public relations manager, as a therapist, as a student, as a teacher, as a drifter, as a meditation coach, and as a US Marine. I am sure that I’m forgetting more than a few discarded dreams.

Who are you and what do you do? Too many times have I fabricated and discarded answers to this question.

I never took the question seriously, I never took myself seriously.

And Redshirts has changed that. Redshirts has changed me.

I am a teacher and a writer.

Seriously.

_________

I do not seriously believe Scalzi wrote this book specifically for me. He wrote it for many people, people he and I both could strongly relate to. I do not know if I believe in Providence. But finding this life-altering novel at MIT (a place I consider to be sacred ground) with a BookCrossing tracking number on its front page tempts me to thank Zeus, or God, or Shiva, or L Ron Hubbard.

 But not thank him or her in any serious way.

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