Redshirts by John Scalzi—a brief review and commentary

Fans of Star Trek, the original series, will immediately understand the premise of this very humorous novel. For the few folks who aren’t familiar with the show, there were a handful of officers who were the “stars” of Star Trek. In the show, the starship ventured from planet to planet. Often, one or more officers left the ship on “away” missions, and they were almost always dangerous. Those bridge officers were usually accompanied by security officers, and in the color scheme of the original series, security staff wore red shirts. As the show couldn’t lose any main cast members, the extras, playing security staff, would invariably be the ones to be maimed or killed.

In Redshirts, the author follows a young officer assigned to the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union. Ensign Dahl is thrilled to be onboard, but soon becomes apprehensive, because he quickly realizes that when lowly crew members accompany the captain, its chief science officer, or its chief engineer, those lowly crew members would bear the brunt of any dangerous action. In other words, Ensign Dahl is a “red shirt” without actually wearing a red uniform. So, as a very intelligent young officer, Dahl must navigate the command structure of the Intrepid and learn how to stay alive. Quickly, he figures out that it is best to be anywhere other than on an “Away Mission.”

At times, Redshirts is laugh out loud funny. For instance, any attack on the ship will take out the lower decks, but the bridge always remains unscathed. And one young lieutenant has so many close calls, but he never dies, as he is a “main character.” Soon it becomes apparent that only a few characters will always survive. More experienced crew members seem to have figured out how to dodge being tapped for away missions, thus newbies like Ensign Dahl are more likely to end up dead. Rather than explain what they do and what the manage to figure out, I will simply say that the novel goes where the reader might not expect. And, while the novel really is funny, it is also a bit challenging.

Not since Galaxy Quest have I seen such a good parody of television space opera. Fans of the genre will certainly find something to like in Redshirts. And, for those few folks who have never seen Star Trek in any of its various iterations, this novel is still funny, but probably won’t resonate quite so well. However, the novel is rather, well, novel in that it doesn’t end at the end. Instead there are three sections after the end, called Codas. Some reviewers liked them, some did not. Hopefully, some of my readers will take up the challenge and try this book.

Science fiction fans tend to be smart, and it takes some smarts to appreciate this novel. That said, it is quite creative.

Re-Reading, The Quantum Rose by Catherine Asaro

My recent visit to a used bookstore netted me a couple of relics from my past reading, including a paperback of Catherine Asaro’s The Quantum Rose. For those who have not read any of Asaro’s Skolian saga, this book might make a good starting point, but it is probably a better read for those who are already familiar with this rather involved science fiction/fantasy/romance series.

The Quantum Rose won the 2001 Nebula Award

Asaro’s bio is almost as mind-boggling as her stories: She holds a doctorate in chemical physics, and she is a former ballerina, jazz dancer, and sometime singer. Her books include near future science fiction, such as The Veiled Web and the Phoenix Code, the 14 (or so) volume Skolian saga, which begins with Primary Inversion, The Lost Continent series, The Uplift Saga series, and more.

For me, this book is really hard to quantify. One tag line is that it is a re-telling of Beauty and the Beast. Uh, not really. Another is that it is a physics allegory, and the author ‘s note at the end makes every effort to explain the book via that lens, and while interesting, I kinda got lost in her description of particle physics after a while. Certainly this book is a romantic science fiction story, and there’s really not much high brow competition in that sub-genre. While readable, Asaro is never simplistic.

This story does fill in some gaps in the Skolian saga, which generally tells the story of members of the Ruby Dynasty in a book (or two.) Interestingly, the point of view character in The Quantum Rose is Kamoj Argali, a young ruler of an impoverished province on a backward planet, and not a member of the Ruby Dynasty. Kamoj does end up entangled in their saga, because she becomes involved with Vyrl, one of the Ruby Dynasty, who is sojourning on her planet for a while, and they end up falling in love.

The first part of the book is all about Kamoj, Vyrl, and the complications of her previous engagement to a local leader of questionable morals, Jax Ironbridge. This first half is more romance than sci-fi, although sci-fi elements are present. The second half is mostly set off of that world, filling in certain backstory aspects of the Skolian saga, with more science fiction and a heavy dose of fantasy. At this point, the romance takes a back seat to the political machinations that are part and parcel of the Skolian yarn.

While I enjoyed The Quantum Rose once again, I have trouble understanding why it won the Nebula award, which goes to the best science fiction novel of the year (via a vote of the SFWA). Yes, it is skillfully written and the quantum part of the title is justified, at least in the author’s notes after the novel, as “playing with quantum scattering theory.” Still, I have to wonder if it was really the very best science fiction novel of 2000. I like most of the Asaro novels I have read, and I think some of the others are better than The Quantum Rose. Hum, maybe it was the lack of competition.

Re-reading, Goddess by Mistake

Recently, I got my hands on a used copy of a book I loaned and lost, Goddess by Mistake by P.C. Cast. Often, books are so similar that I don’t remember them well enough to write a decent review a week or two after I have finished them. Goddess by Mistake was memorable for me, so much so that I remembered it almost two decades after my first reading of it, so when I scored a used one on eBay, I put it at the top of to be read pile. The story still seems fresh, but the sassy narrator is the main reason I liked it then, and why I still like it. For those who want to know more, here’s a link to my “old” blog.

http://pamspages.blogspot.com/2007/08/

Star Trek Voyager: A Celebration

While all Star Trek series are worthy, some are just more interesting than others. Deep Space Nine has some great characters and acting, but initially suffered from being “stationary” rather than zipping around like the Star Trek ( the original series) or Star Trek: The Next Generation. As Roddenberry’s vision had sharpened and the syndication model freed him from many constraints, probably TNG is the overall best series. Certainly, the acting is amazing and the scrips are often really great, too. But, as special effects have become better and better, TNG suffers a bit in that area. Enter Star Trek: Voyager, which had a seriously huge void to fill, as it debut was a mere six months after TNG ended its seven year run. I also reviewed a book, Star Trek Voyager, A Vision of the Future, written during Voyager’s run, which is good, but last year, this volume, written as an anniversary edition, does a much better job of explaining the series as a whole, from development to the two part ending episode, “End Game.”

Upon receiving the book, I thought it would be one of those “coffee table” books, long on pictures and short on words. Nope, although there are many pictures. Indeed, the use of now decades old still pictures from the series is sometimes a weak point. However, there are drawings, pictures of behind the scenes contributors, and plenty of text. Overall, I really enjoyed the book, which is written in short segments which can be quickly read, but there are many sections, and these don’t necessarily need to be read in any fixed order.

The book begins, logically, with series development, and then there’s a short (two page) section devoted to the title sequence. I had no idea that this part (often “skipped” while streaming) was nominated for an Emmy award. Interspersed with the more technical aspects of the series are longer passages about the characters, beginning, of course, with Captain Janeway. The authors (two principal and two others, along with a general editor and a sub-editor) rely upon previously published material as well as newly conducted interviews with some cast members, as well as writers, producers, artist, and a host of others. Kate Mulgrew, who played Janeway, is among those who share memories in this book, and she discusses how much pressure was upon her as the first female captain of a Star Trek series, and how she approached the character as well as learning the scientific language necessary in this sort of show.

As there were many episodes (16 the first season, and 26 in each of the following six seasons) not all of them are featured, but sections devoted what are termed “key” episodes are mixed in with the other segments. The first, “Caretaker” is the two part pilot, and some of the other key episodes include “Tuvix” a character created by a transporter accident in which Neelix and Tuvok are blended into one individual. Each character gets a section, and most of multi episode villains do also. There are a couple of segments about the ship, one about the Delta Flyer, which is a smaller ship built by the Voyager crew about halfway through their journey, as well as segments about the special effects department, the makeup artists, the costumers, the writers, and the directors. As a fan of Voyager since it originally was broadcast, I knew quite a bit about the series, but there’s a lot of new material. For instance, I knew that some of the actors directed certain episodes, but I did not know that Star Trek actually fostered this by holding a “director in training” program. Roxann Dawson, who played Lt. Torres, directed a couple of episodes of Voyager, but went on to become a sought after director. She states that the program changed her life.

Bob Picardo took advantage of the DIT program and directed episodes of Voyager, but he also gets a writing credit, as he pitched a story line which was used, and he co-wrote the script. Robbie McNeil, who played Tom Paris, also directed multiple episodes of Voyager and went on to direct other projects.

When TNG was in production, many of the special effects were done with models, but by the time Voyager was being produced, digital graphics were beginning to be more cost effective, as well as allowing more creative shots, so as the seven seasons went by, more and more VFX were done digitally. However, in the show’s 100th episode, “Timeless”, the ship is depicted as crashing into a snow and ice covered planet. The visual effects crew found that digital snow wasn’t working, so they ended up doing a practical shot with a model crashing into a tray of baking soda. I’ve seen that episode several times, and I am amazed by how good it looks on the screen.

For fans of Star Trek Voyager, this book is a real treat. For readers interested in television, particularly directing, writing, and special effects, it is worthy. Casual readers or those who just “look at the pictures” might be a tad disappointed in this book, but I read it cover to cover, with a couple sections earning a second reading. For now, it has a spot on my “keeper” shelf, too.

Time for Dystopian Science Fiction?

Reader’s Alley, a nifty site for bargain eBook lovers, divides their science fiction offerings into sub-genres: sci-fi romance, sci-fi thriller, and science fiction, dystopian. While those first two descriptors would seem self-evident, the dystopian flavor is considered by some (mostly jaded members of academia) as the only serious science fiction. Typically, I avoid reading dystopias because they tend to be so darned depressing. But, with all that is happening in the news, which I also try to avoid, perhaps it is time to take a look at the genre.

One of the finest books about the history of science fiction is Brian Aldiss’ Trillion Year Spree, which covers science fiction literature from its beginnings to the early 1980s. Aldiss does discuss many sub-genres, but the thread of dystopia runs strongly throughout his encyclopedia of science fiction in printed form. The term, dystopia, is applicable to “a world in which everything is imperfect, and everything goes terribly wrong. Dystopian literature shows us a nightmarish image about what might happen to the world in the near future. Usually the main themes of dystopian works are rebellion, oppression, revolutions, wars, overpopulation, and disasters. On the other hand, Utopia is a perfect world – exactly opposite of dystopia.”

Science has, until recently, been viewed as a two edged sword; while it can make life much better, mis-use of science has been the root of all sorts of evils. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is often considered to be the first science fiction novel, and the dark side of science is clearly the central theme of the novel. Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment and Rappacini’s Daughter, short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, also feature mis-use of science as their main themes. When teaching those stories, which used to be in many American Lit anthologies, one way to make it simple for students is to say, “Hawthorne is basically telling his readers, ‘don’t mess around with Mother Nature’.”

Later novelists fine tuned dystopian themes, with societies becoming more and more restrictive upon the populace. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 share these themes, “including the consequences of totalitarianismmass surveillance, and repressive regimentation of persons and behaviours within society.” Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Harrison Burgeron is one of the most widely read dystopian stories, due to its inclusion in anthologies for students, and I recently read a news story liking our current government policies to Vonnegut’s didactic work. Y’all, it is scary when dystopia becomes reality.

Of course, many fans of science fiction today seldom, if ever, read it. Instead, what they know of utopia and dystopia is presented via video. Early episodes of Star Trek explored both sides of the scientific divide. The Ultimate Computer, rather dated today, explored the man vs. machine conflict, using future war games as a setting for its rather disturbing premise. Various dystopian novels have been adapted to long form (movies) video, including everything from 1984 to Planet of the Apes. There are literally dozens of dystopian sci fi films. Some are rather laughable now (Mad Max?) but others are quite troubling.

My own fiction, which has many conflicts for characters to attempt to resolve, certainly isn’t “happily ever after, ” but it isn’t as dark as some of these works, and that’s because my outlook on life is more pragmatic. Hopefully, there will be some gravitation away from the totalitarian policies of modern politicians and administrators. But, when I consider what I am seeing when I do go out and about, I wonder. I really do. Remember this: In each fictional dystopia, the goal was to make things better for certain segments of the population, and bad outcomes are unhappy accidents. Be careful what you wish for—

Semi/Human by Erik Hanberg—review and commentary

A Y/A science fiction yarn

As the pandemic has continued to plague businesses, many of them are accelerating their transition to robots and artificial intelligence, thus replacing or supplementing their all too frail human employees. Semi/Human is set in the near future, and in this novel Silicon Valley has finally written an adaptable code that makes most human employees obsolete. Vehicles drive themselves, dealers in Vegas are all robots, police have been replaced by armed drones, and so forth.

Main character Pen(ney) Davis is more than depressed, because like most other human jobs, her intern job at a Silicon Valley computer firm has been eliminated. However, Pen has come up with a less than practical scheme to steal a ridiculously expensive treasure from her former employer and get rich enough to care a lot less about being unemployed.

As Alexander Pope once observed, “A little bit of learning is a dangerous thing,” and recent intern Pen re-writes the code of a self-driving truck, intending to hijack it for a trip across the country, but ends up making the aforementioned truck autonomous instead. Fortunately for Pen, the truck, Lara B, is both friendly and grateful.

Lest I ruin this tale for readers, let me just say that this yarn is cogent, examining the societal damage which would ensue if gainful employment ceased, as well as the ethics of dealing with a self-aware, nearly omniscient super computer. There’s a dash of economic reality sprinkled in as well, because with no work, there’s no money coming in for the vast majority of the populace, so they end up fighting over whatever is left behind in the technological revolution.

There’s also more than a little suspense, as Pen and Lara B join forces to accomplish the original mission, wherein Pen hopes to acquire both riches and revenge in one fell swoop. Semi/Human is one of those rare books that blends a cautionary theme with an entertaining plot. Most of the characters are well drawn, and there is sufficient description of settings to keep the reader entertained but the plot never bogs down.

As a frequent reader of science fiction, it is rare for me to call a novel memorable, but for me Semi/Human is such a book. Perhaps I simply read it a the right time, or perhaps the book is really that good. If you like youthful, sassy heroines, self-aware computers (and trucks) along with a suspense filled story line, you really should try Semi/Human.