Ok, so here’s what’s going to go down. I’m going to talk about a book. It is fantastic. It has a killer reveal right in the middle. I do not want to give away the nature of this awesomeness, because I still want you to read the book. So when it seems like I drastically change the subject out of nowhere, just know that it’s for your own good. You have been warned. And if you connect the dots, that shit is not my fault. I do not want to hear any blah blah about how I ruined the book for you. Because I just spent a couple of hours of my life agonizing about how to delicately approach this, up to and including tweeting the author himself in what I’m sure was a really annoying, whiny, repetitive-fan-question kind of way. So.
We cool, Yolanda? We’re gonna be like three little Fonzies. We’re gonna be cool.
That was a Pulp Fiction reference. I hope you got it.
So, you remember my post about John Scalzi? The one where I said Redshirts was a huge, meganerdy bestseller? I finally got a copy and read it over my electricity-related life hiatus. And it was amazeballs. Let me make that clear: Amaze. Balls. All of it. So often when I read a book, it has good bits with a kind of desert of exposition lurking in between (my friend Laura calls these “candy bar scenes” and “salad scenes” – you need them, but you don’t enjoy them as much). From the first page – nay! from the dedication (“To Wil Wheaton, whom I heart with all the heartiness a heart can heart.”) – this book was great.
A brief introductory rundown: The spaceship Intrepid has stopped to take on new crew. Very quickly the main character realizes that he and every single one of these new people is there to replace someone who has died, most of them under suspicious or ridiculous circumstances. Furthermore, there are certain higher-ranking officers who always either come home safely or, when injured, heal unnaturally quickly, while all around them crewmen are dropping like flies. There is, apparently, a pattern to the whole thing, which some folks have figured out and others are oblivious to: away missions are the kiss of death, especially when in the company of this handful of seemingly golden officers. They try with all their might to avoid falling victim to this repetitive and predictable sequence of events, which seems to be completely out of their control, like it might be in the hands of some horrible, puppeteer-like, voyeuristic outsiders.
Does this sound familiar at all? Perhaps like a frequently-utilized plot device on a very popular science fiction television program?
Now I’m going to say some things about Star Trek that may not make sense, but you’re going to roll with it, right? Because we had an agreement about you not asking questions.
Redshirts lives on a fine line between playing on massive cultural conventions and playing to a specific group of fans. That sounds kind of shitty. Let me try again. There’s a difference between “homage” and “pandering.” A big, fat, important difference. Scalzi hasn’t written an insiders-only sort of book. Even if you’ve never seen a single episode of Star Trek, you can get the jokes and the references here. But if you have (and I recognize you with a knowing grin, but not in a creepy way) there are even more delightful goodies waiting for you in Redshirts.
It’s not quite Trek, though, either. It’s close enough for metaphor, but not so close as to step on anyone’s love for the thing. Which seems like it would be hard to do. Harder still when that particular type of fandom is so rabid and every single little detail has been discussed and dissected for the last fifty years. And while I’m a fan, I’m not one of those fans who knows the script designation for each extra without a name, so maybe this wouldn’t come off the same way to those guys. I honestly don’t know. (On a related note: is that offensive that that’s my line for super crazy fans? Someone tell me, please, because I’m not sure exactly how to watch my mouth in these situations, and I love all the fans equally even though we’re not all on the same level.)
Clearly, Scalzi has love not only for the conventions of the genre, but for the absorption and acceptance of those conventions. And, as I’ve said before, Scalzi is a fucking hilarious guy. But what makes this book really great is that idea of squishing stereotypical scifi-genre reactions up against actual normal reactions. They’re so…different. Why is that? Why does scifi make us yell at our screens or ask our couchmates, “What the hell?” (Probably the only other thing that’s worse is the quintessential horror movie dumb blonde running up the stairs in the dark to get away from the quintessential axe murderer. What are you doing, bitch? There’s no way out up there! Makes me want to pull my hair out.) That juxtaposition is both interesting and extremely important here. It normalizes. It humanizes. It satirizes. It brings it down out of the realm of the just-a-little-absurd-but-it’s-ok-I-can-ignore-it. And it’s never been so funny. Because…reasons.
Ugh, this is really hard, you guys. Let it be known that when you read the book, all this bad writing will make sense. I swear, my hand to the universe and all the atoms, it makes perfect fucking sense. I’m not a hack. Probably.
Here’s the thing I really want to talk about (without giving anything away – hmm, maybe). What’s the difference between what we’re prepared to accept in fiction versus in television or movies? Is there really that big a disparity between consumers? I think there might be. One could write a book with the assumption that the audience has seen a tv show, but not the other way around (see also: Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, etc). I’ll be the first to say that the book will always be better. But am I wrong? Is that snobby? Is it me being condescending to tv or movie viewers? Or is the tv/movie industry being ignorant of avid readers (which gets me off the hook)? Or both? Neither, maybe? There are places where these things aren’t quite separate. And it’s hard for me to navigate, but I couldn’t tell you why. I just feel like there’s an inherent difference between visual and verbal storytelling. There’s a line in the sand when it comes to exposition. Clearly there’s a monetary difference, as well, and I could overgeneralize and say that that’s because people are dumb and don’t want to be bothered with books, but that doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel fair. Because there’s no noticeable difference in the fandom, in person. When you whittle it down to the nub, we love what we love, no matter the medium. (And if this book gets made into a movie it will be so meta, and I might cry with joy.)
Here’s my little superfan moment. I hope you’ll indulge me (it’s my blog! I can have squishy feely moments if I want to! Bah!). This whole discussion can be boiled down to that dedication to Wil Wheaton. He’s not only a megafan of Trek, but he became a cast member. He’s not only an avid reader, but he became a writer. He’s not Just a Geek, but he makes fun things for cool, geeky people. And when you read Redshirts, the lines blur between reality and perceived reality and spoonfed reality. Wheaton is all of those things, all wrapped up in one little furry package. He’s the Redshirts of real human people. Or Redshirts is the real book version of Wheatonalia. It’s so hard to tell, in this case. Fan, actor, reader, writer, geek, fawned-upon-by-geeks. It’s all the same. Doesn’t matter.
My point is that we’ve gotten to a point in our society where we do or say or wear or write things that tie in to so much other stuff. Our fandoms are these crazy Crystalline Entity-looking things. We’re walking Venn diagrams. Maybe it’s a generational thing, and we’re just now catching up to our over-exposure to the media, which somehow resulted in a rash of horribly intricate mashups. But I think we can do better than that. We’re more than t-shirts and witty stickers. If we try, we can be Redshirts.
Not as expendable, though.
You know what I mean. Or you will, when you read the book. Just go read it! Go now!
Jeez, that was hard.