The Duck of Minerva

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Friday Nerd Blogging: Now for Something Completely Different

July 27, 2012

Instead of posting a video, I thought I would present a short book plug/review:

I actually don’t read that much science fiction or fantasy, but I could not resist once I heard the concept of Redshirts by John Scalzi: that instead of writing about the main characters on a starship, he would focus on those extras that tended to get killed on the away teams that get deployed to the planets the starship would visit.  Scalzi is touching on a key piece of nerd culture as we have long noticed that the folks on Star Trek (classic version) who beamed down with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy tended to have short life expectancies.

Okay, so far so good, but it gets even better beyond the break where I spoil away:
The real genius of the book is that the small group of extras that are the focal point become aware of this dynamic that Redshirts die at an amazingly and statistically improbable rate.  Indeed, these folks are new to the ship, the Intrepid, and realize that the behavior of everyone is out of whack.  The captain, the science officer and a few other leads expose themselves to grave dangers but are never hurt, except for one, the astrogator (think Chekhov) who always gets hurt but never fatally.  The crew have figured this out and have learned to dodge the officers when they are looking for folks to build an away team.

Better still, our Redshirts begin to believe in something crazy–that they are all potentially vulnerable to this crazy force that can overcome physics and certainly overcome logic.  This force is called The Narrative.  If it is necessary for the furtherance of the plot of a particular adventure (episode), then a member of the crew will suddenly know things they didn’t know before or suddenly act in ways they would not have, such as foolishly running across an area inhabited by Dune-like or Tremor-like earthworms.  This concept, of the Narrative forcing these real people who are also characters to act, well, it changed how I experienced The Dark Knight Rises.  Much of Bane’s evil plans seem less than logical but driven by that strange mystical force–The Narrative.  Indeed, why Midichlorians?  Because it was required by the Narrative!

Anyway, in the book, our Redshirts start to realize that they are really the victims of bad writing.  That the screen-writer responsible for the show that they are on tends to be lazy and kills extras off for the sake of drama instead of putting the effort into writing a story that makes sense and builds drama more organically.  How do the extras save themselves?  Via time travel, of course.  They must visit Hollywood when their show is being produced and change how it is written.  Yes, really.

Along the way, Scalzi not only sends up Star Trek in a big, big way, but much of science fiction, much of TV production, and much of nerd culture.  It is a very funny book that is so meta it makes Community look as un-meta as Happy Days.  Oh, and after the main story is over, there are three codas which are not only funny and moving but demonstrate how one can write in the first, second and third person.  Yes, the first coda is written in the first person, the second one is in the second person (don’t remember the last time I read something told from that perspective), and so on.

First Coda: To be clear, the Narrative is not an evil force, but can be used for good or evil.  And even for edu-tainment, as I happened to discuss this week over at Political Violence @ a Glance.

Second Coda: You really should read the book–heaps of fun. (Yes, you scoff at my effort to write in the second person.  But then you move on).

Third Coda: Oh, and Scalzi also has a very good blog:  He made a big noise recently by making a really interesting suggestion: that being a straight white male was the equivalent of choosing the easy or rookie level of difficulty on a video game.  A perhaps more topical post of his for this blog is on who gets to decide who is a geek or not. Behind the scenes of the Duck, we have had some discussion about whether Friday Nerd Blogging should just be Charli’s bailiwick (my stance) or that anyone can post such stuff (Charli’s).  Of course, hers is the right answer and mine is the free-riding approach.  Anyhow, now that Charli is back from vacation, I expect her to be posting silly stuff on Friday’s, but I will probably keep doing it as well.  Too much stuff that is too fun not to share.

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Steve Saideman is Professor and the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He has written The Ties That Divide: Ethnic Politics, Foreign Policy and International Conflict; For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War (with R. William Ayres); and NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone (with David Auerswald), and elsewhere on nationalism, ethnic conflict, civil war, and civil-military relations.