Book Review: Redshirts

redshirtsRedshirts
by John Scalzi
Science Fiction
317 pages
Published 2012

Some books are surreal suspensions of disbelief. Some books just make you go “WHAT the FUCK” every couple of chapters when a new twist is revealed, and this is one of the latter. Just – what the FUCK.

Imagine your average sci-fi space opera TV show on cable television with hand-wavey science and half-assed special effects – take those characters and make them realize they’re IN A TV SHOW. Let them realize all of their woes are due to shitty writing, and see what they do with that knowledge. THAT is this book, and it is crazy and hilarious and weird and eye-roll-inducing.

Between the time travel, the Box that does magic science behind the scenes so things work out on-screen, the Narrative taking control and making people say and do things they wouldn’t otherwise do – this book is wacky and just full of what-the-fuckery. It’s fun, though, and if you can keep yourself from groaning out loud every few pages, it’s a pretty good read.

From the cover of Redshirts:

Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, and Andrew is even more thrilled to be assigned to the ship’s xenobiology laboratory, with the chance to serve on “Away Missions” alongside the starship’s famous senior officers.

Live couldn’t be better . . . until Andrew begins to realize that (1) every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces, (2) the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations, and (3) sadly, at least one low-ranked crew member is invariable killed.

Unsurprisingly, the savvier members belowdecks avoid Away Missions at all costs. Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is . . . and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives.

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Book Review: Kindred

kindredKindred
Octavia Butler
Historical Fiction
306 pages
Published 2004

I’m not really sure where to start with this book. It’s in that category of “classics that everyone should read” and having finally read it, I agree. It’s really, really, really good. It’s a hard read at times – it takes you right into the antebellum south and the heart of slavery. It’s actually set in Maryland, which is a little jarring for me – in today’s political climate, Maryland isn’t really considered part of “the south” – it’s far more liberal than most of the south. A blue state, where those are all red. But it WAS a slave state. It is below the Mason-Dixon line, and reading the wiki, slavery was actually legal here longer than it was in the south. (Mostly because the Emancipation Proclamation only covered the Confederate States, not the slave-holding Union states of Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland. That’s screwed up. You can’t have slaves, but it’s totally cool that the people that fought for us still keep them?)

So Kindred is set mostly in pre-Civil War Maryland, with a few scenes in modern-day California. The mystery of how Dana time-travels is never explained – but it doesn’t really need to be. That’s not the point of the story. The point of the story is a modern-day black woman transplanted to the antebellum south and learning to understand slavery in a very intimate manner. Dana mentions a couple of times how easy it is to forget that she has another life – that’s she’s a free black woman from the future – because the way they keep slaves in line doesn’t give you time to think past the present. You work too hard to think of the future, and if you don’t, all you can think about is the pain from your punishment for not working hard enough.

The book is a very visceral portrayal of a somewhat pampered slave’s life – she’s not a field hand, her masters are what passes for “kind.” Dana’s fellow slaves live in fear of being sold down south to Mississippi – they know Maryland is better. As hard as some of the scenes are to read, the book explicitly says it could be harder.

The conflict Dana feels between rescuing her white, slave-owning ancestor again and again, and standing back and letting nature take its course (but dooming herself) is one of the central points of the book. It’s a moral quandary that she never really answers.

Ultimately, there’s no way to do this book justice in a review. I think it should be required high school reading. More than that, I think it should be required reading for white people. And if you haven’t read it yet, you should. I knew on an intellectual level what slaves went through – but this book doesn’t look at it from a distance. It doesn’t divorce the reader from the violence. It puts the reader right there in the dirt of the yard with the whip exploding across Dana’s back.

I think it took me so long to get around to this book because it IS a classic. And so many classics I was forced to read in school were boring and dry and hard to read. I’m starting to find that some are classics because they’re just that good. Good and necessary and written about critically important topics. Kindred is one of them.

From the cover of Kindred:

Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.