In Chapter 19 Larry Correia was bemoaning the state of the Hugo Awards after failing to be a finalist after the first Sad Puppy campaign. As discussed, Correia was not alone in being dissatisfied with the 2013 Hugo Awards but here I wander into one of the distortions of writing a historical project. In retrospect, because of later events, Larry Correia’s Sad Puppy posts gain greater significance but at the time they were more of an addition to a wider list of complaints from more diverse sources.
Not long after the 2013 Hugo finalists had been announced, German fan-writer and indie author Cora Buhlert wrote a lengthy post as a round-up of the various people expressing unhappiness with the set of finalists. Buhlert herself was puzzled by the controversy:
“Odd. I’d have thought that this year’s Hugo shortlist was pretty much uncontroversial. I mean, we have a healthy representation of women and writers of colour, most of the nominations went to works and writers that are popular or at least talked about, there are very few “What the Fuck?” nominees compared with other years (e.g. last year’s nominees included a filk CD and a Hugo acceptance speech from the previous year). Sure, there still are issues, particularly with certain categories, but there always are issues.”http://corabuhlert.com/2013/04/04/hugo-nomination-reactions-or-why-the-fuck-is-this-controversial/ 
Meanwhile, Ursula Vernon (the 2012 Hugo Winner for Best Graphic Story) was looking more broadly at Worldcon and its capacity to cope with shifting demographics. In particular, Vernon was concerned about how Worldcon was adjusting to the ageing of the convention but not because many of the fans were older:
“Now, before anybody gets their bowels in an uproar about ageism or about how we’re blaming fandom’s intransigence on old people, let me hastily say that this is a symptom, not necessarily the cause.“https://web.archive.org/web/20131113115854/http://www.redwombatstudio.com/blog/?p=5642
Vernon contrasted Worldcon with two other kinds of fandom she was involved with both of which had an older demographic: gardening and birdwatching. As well as explaining how both gardening and birdwatching have much the same dynamics as science fiction fandom in general, Vernon contrasted these other communities with Worldcon.
“The problem of Worldcon, sez I, and of a subset of SF fandom in general is not that it is full of old people. All my fandoms are full of old people. So far, it hasn’t been a problem. They’ve generally been glad to see me, and I’ve been glad to see them. The guy with the scope who got me my Elegant Tern was probably a contemporary of Jules Verne, and the guy who patiently got me onto a Cerulean Warbler in High Island was weathered like a megalith. And I would put any curmudgeon in SF, no matter how legendary, up against the late Henry Mitchell, who would have turned them into mulch and planted daffodils amongst their bones. No, the problem is that it is insular and intransigent and run by rules (Robert’s Rules of Order, ahem***) that favor the status quo over change. It is that it has problems, and one of the manifestations of that problem is that young people aren’t showing up.“ibid
Vernon’s analysis tried to find a path between acceptance of the status quo and unfairly demonising older fans. Organised fandom was naturally going to skew older than fandom in a broader sense as it relied on people with the time, money and experience to run complex events as volunteers. Commerical pop-culture orientated conventions could draw bigger and younger crowds but by their nature were not events controlled by fans.
Multi-Hugo winning fan writer and a veteran of several decades of Worldcons, Mike Glyer noted (amid a different Worldcon related controversy) that the term ‘SMOF’ was being used pejoratively in these broad discussions:
“However, as we have been going through an especially unhappy season with lots of blogging about the evil, nasty conrunners, some of which has been reported here, there’s been a trend back toward the word having a pejorative meaning in some circles.”http://file770.com/cornell-apologizes-for-smof-routine/
Organised fandom was ageing but then organised fandom had always been ageing as that was a basic feature of a universe with a time axis orientated towards a direction of greater entropy. The question people were struggling with was whether Worldcon and the Hugo Awards could adapt quickly enough to changing societal expectations, particularly around issues of women, LGBTQI issues, disability and race/ethnicity. Looking through the majority of these posts, there were two different expectations:
- Worldcon (and hence the Hugo Awards) had an unfixable issue and hence would slowly fade into irrelevance due to the control of an ageing set of fans.
- An ageing fanbase was a self-correcting problem. Generational change will happen but fans (including older fans) will need to help this happen.
What nobody was predicting was a third option: a younger Generation-X set of fans/authors intentionally pushing back against social change in science fiction.
Could fans control the fate of fandom or was the future set by uncaring social forces? Were the Hugo Awards simply playthings of the past? That the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Novel (the highest-profile category) was a novel titled after a long-running (but inaccurate) joke about the original Star Trek series, did imply that the Hugo voters might be looking more to the past than the future. Or was it? As John Scalzi himself noted in 2013 after winning:
“Part of the “fun” of winning the Hugo for Best Novel is that after your book wins, people try to explain why it won, because for some reason the answer of “this is the book that largest number of people who voted for the Hugo Awards thought should win the award” is existentially unsatisfying.”https://whatever.scalzi.com/2013/09/03/hugo-thoughts-2013/
Other factors in the victory for Redshirts might have included:
- John Scalzi was the high profile President of the SFWA
- John Scalzi had been active for left wing casues — a claim made by Baen author John Ringo, which we will return to in a later chapter
- Redshirts was a compromise winner between an establishment choice (Lois McMaster Bujold) and ‘new blood’ candidates (Mira Grant or Saladin Ahmed)
- Redshirts was fun and populist and hence came top of what was just a popularity contest
It is hard to dismiss these factors but equally, each one would have worked as an explanation of why the novel would have lost. The discussion about the operational and social mechanics of a Hugo win aren’t pointless but they miss the central question: was Redshirts a good Hugo win?
There had been some arguments that the 2011 Hugo winner Blackout/All Clear was a less strong winner than previous years and more generally critics have attempted to identify stronger and weaker periods of Hugo Award winners. In considering what the future fate of the Hugo Awards should be (or what alternatives should exist) a central question is what the Hugo Awards should be rewarding? Larry Correia’s first Sad Puppies campaign characterised the awards as being insufficiently populist. A Guardian article from 2013 stated that the Hugo Awards were seen as being too populist. What was generally agreed was that the Hugo Awards had a lasting status whether the critic writing about them felt that was deserved or not.
That status that is still attached to the Hugo Awards is nebulous but intrinsic to it is a long track record of rewarding novels (in particular) that have, in later years been seen as classics of the genre. A contemporaneous review of Redshirts asked the question of whether it was the best novel of 2012 by comparing it to three past Hugo Award winning novels:
- 1961 – A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter John Miller
- 1962 – A Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert Heinlein
- 1963 – The Man in the High Castle – Philip K Dick
They aren’t the three Hugo ‘greats’ I’d pick but they exemplify a way people evaluate the Hugo Awards: Will this novel be later regarded as a classic of the genre? Rather like how the inner working of a machine-learning algorithm might be a mysterious black-box so long as it produces good results, the quirky mix of voting rules and fannish arguments underlying the Hugo Awards can be evaluated as good and effective just so long as they keep picking stories that are well regarded in the future.
That was a tough standard for Redshirts to meet. For a start, it is (at least superficially) a comedy and the Hugo Awards had rarely awarded comedies in the novel categories. Not that science fiction or fans or fandom more generally was immune to comedy, quite the opposite but arguably the very status of the Hugo Award put comedic novels at a disadvantage.
Secondly, Redshirts was seen as derivative (based on Star Trek) but also had an odd structure — the main plot followed by three ‘codas’ that were unusually written short stories tangential to the main plot. It was also written in a style that was distinctly that of John Scalzi but also, in particular, was often in the same sort of snarky/flippant tone used by Scalzi in his blogging and social media.
Many reviewers at the time were underwhelmed by it. Aidan Moher said of it that it was “fast, fun and forgettable” and that it was also “pretty, predictable and prosaic”. Other reviewers complained about the poor world building, others liked it in parts but found the meta-fictional aspects made it ‘lose its sparkle’, whereas one reviewer simply stated that it ‘sucks’.
When beginning this project to examine the history (and beyond) of the Puppy Kerfuffle of 2015, I decided to revisit Redshirts specifically to see if nine years after it had been published whether it would feel hopelessly dated or whether time had improved it. Rather than re-read the physical book, I chose the audiobook, partly because during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 I had taken to exercise while listening to books on my phone. This was a wise choice because Scalzi’s metafictional homage to Star Trek is narrated by his friend Wil Wheaton, the former child actor who played Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The premise of Redshirts is simple. A set of new ensigns start work as minor members of the crew of quasi-military starship of the kind made famous by Star Trek. In Redshirts, Star Trek’s federation is called the Universal Union and the homologue of the Enterprise is the Intrepid. Initially, the story takes the course that the basic premise (and title) suggest. The main characters are placed in the role of what would be minor, disposable characters in Star Trek and in the process they get to comment on, joke about and be disturbed by the various plot holes, cliches and often senseless deaths that we might expect from a generic TV space opera. It is an entertaining idea and similar to the idea that won the film Galaxy Quest a Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation in 2000.
If the story only went that far, then it could well have been an entertaining but perhaps forgettable novelette. Instead, this is just an introduction to a set of layers within which Scalzi gets to examine questions about writing, character, time and predestination. Redshirts is a class clown, using jokes as a front to express deeper anxieties and troubling questions.
The central character, Ensign Andrew Dahl, learns from the mysterious Jenkins (a crew member who has hidden himself away amid the service tunnels of the ship) that answer to the strange goings-on aboard ship is the ‘narrative’: a suspension of normal reality in which events and behaviour warp to serve the needs of a storyline. There is an underlying horror to the circumstance that Dahl and his friends have found themselves in that Scalzi doesn’t entirely address but which the grieving and paranoid Jenkins has the strongest sense of.
There’s another element here, that I’d wholly missed the first time I had read this. Dahl and his friends are initially quite superficially drawn characters. Only after meeting Jenkins properly (who is a side character but who is given a more distinct personality) does Scalzi start drawing them out more. They still aren’t deeply drawn characters but it is more than simply being further along in the novel. Dahl gains depth as he attempts to take more control over events, as he essentially tries to assert that he isn’t a disposable character in a pulpy space opera.
Discovering that their lives (and deaths) are being intermittently hi-jacked by the plot of a 21st century cheap knock-off of Star Trek, Dahl and his friends plot to travel back in time. The time travel process is absurd but only because the only way the characters can time travel is by exploiting an absurd time travel plot from an earlier episode. For good measure, they also kidnap a member of the bridge crew, Kerensky, who is a kind of Chekov-like character who is prone to being attacked/injured during ‘narrative’ episodes only to fully recover by the end of an episode.
The shift back in time is consistent with classic Star Trek plots which place the crew in twentieth-century circumstances but in Redshirts, it takes the story into a different place as the characters learn about their parallel selves — the minor actors who briefly played them in the “real” TV show.
The ethics of creating a fictional character are normally inconsequential but Redshirts takes the premise needed for the initial parody aspect of the novel and begins raising questions about it. The deaths of the trope-redshirts are low stakes precisely because we, as viewers, have not engaged with them as characters. Kerensky’s numerous brushes with death are the lazy screenwriter’s way of creating dramatic tension but only because Kerensky is a recurring character in the show that the audience knows. TV plays with a depressing aspect of our functional morality: we discount people we don’t have a sense of as individuals. The trope-redshirt isn’t just the unfortunate security guy on an away team but every single person we fail to see as a distinct individual who dies a needless death. One missing person, given a name and a personality on a news report can raise more public concern than large numbers of people stripped of individuality by the sheer volume of death. Running through Redshirts is a spectre of death that is our own callousness towards people that we don’t know.
The three codas that follow the main plot were criticised at the time as the most self-indulgent aspect of the novel. There is some merit to the criticism in so far as Scalzi uses them to demonstrate three ways of writing and names each coda after the narrative style used (first person, second person, third person) which also presents a minor puzzle of identity.
Returning to the novel, I feel they are not only the strongest part of Redshirts but retroactively up-lift the whole novel. Firstly, they show a commitment to the central idea of the novel that a writer has a debt towards secondary characters. It is an impossible debt and maybe an absurd and incoherent form of guilt, but still, having raised the issue Scalzi attempts to rectify the fact that in telling Andrew Dahl’s story he has created spinning tangents of other stories of other characters.
The codas follow three people. The first is a series of blog posts which is both a lazy strategy for Scalzi as they are essentially his daily writing style and also quite effective. The post follows the main writer of the TV show that the titular Redshirts have escaped from. Having learnt about the consequences of his lazy writing, the author (who unavoidably sounds like John Scalzi even if he is a distinct character) now struggles with writer’s block.
The second story is more moving but a little hard to recap without explaining the major plot details of the story. Like the second it also deals with a person in the 21st century associated with the show but raises both emotional questions and philosophical questions about identity. It presents a kind of Philip K Dick-style question of unreality, to which we the readers already know the science-fictional explanation.
The final story closes the circle of the wider plot. The character Jenkins whose role in the main plot was to info-dump the explanation of the narrative to Dahl was driven to investigating the strange circumstances onboard the Intrepid after his wife was killed in an away mission. For the TV show, Jenkins was simply a grieving husband needed for a single scene. The third coda follows the actress who played his wife, another ‘redshirt’ killed due to lazy writing. Via events in the main plot, the actress had become aware of this otherworldly existence of a woman who looked exactly like her. It is a genuinely moving piece that is technically a short story but which only works within the context of the whole novel.
I found, in early 2021, that I was impressed and deeply moved by Redshirts. Yes, you can pick over the tics and standard plays that are the signatures of John Scalzi’s writing but I’d contend as a novel it is a brilliant synthesis of Scalzi’s multiple writing styles. He uses comedy and flippancy to hide a novel that is ambitious both as meta-fiction and as homage and as a reflection on the process of writing. Like onions and ogres, it has layers. Hiding depth in superficiality is an ambitious move and like a lot of Hugo Award finalist, Redshirts is not lacking in flaws but is full of ambition.
Not everybody will like Redshirts: comedy, in particular, is a personal taste and the comic aspect of the novel is the route into the deeper aspects of both the story and the writing. It is a novel worth reading nonetheless, especially for aspiring authors or for people looking to see what science fiction is capable of as a genre (and I’ll contend that science fiction is neither the best nor most popular of genres but it is the most ambitious). I don’t know if it was the best choice for a Hugo Award in 2013, indeed there is no way of knowing because there may be better novels that may still have gone unnoticed, but it was a worthy winner and a good addition to the roster.
Next Time: Dramatis Personae looks at Nora K Jemisin
-  Cora Buhlert wrote several posts capturing the ongoing discussion in 2013, all of which are worth a read to get a sense of the debate but which collectively have too much material to cover here http://corabuhlert.com/2013/09/16/yet-more-worldcon-and-hugo-reactions/ and http://corabuhlert.com/2013/09/09/hugos-and-worldcon-redux/
-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Glyer
-  https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RedShirt
-  https://web.archive.org/web/20130222074856/http://www.significancemagazine.org/details/webexclusive/4381371/Keep-your-redshirt-on-a-bayesian-exploration-of-character-deaths-in-Star-Trek.html
-  SFWA President has not been much of a passport to a Hugo win in the past, political controversy is a mixed blessing, middle-of-the-road or populist is not typically a route to Hugo victory
-  see chapter 16 https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2021/03/25/debarkle-chapter-16-larry-goes-to-reno/
-  https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/sep/02/hugo-awards-2013-science-fiction
-  various attempts at Nebula Award puns have since been deleted.
-  http://beamzine.com/redshirts/
-  I already mentioned the Great Staple of 1934 in an earlier chapter https://fancyclopedia.org/First_Staple_War
-  https://aidanmoher.com/blog/review/2013/03/review-of-redshirts-by-john-scalzi-2/
-  https://dallaslibrary2.org/blogs/bookedSolid/2013/03/book-review-redshirts-by-john-scalzi/
-  https://www.britishfantasysociety.org/reviews/redshirts-by-john-scalzi-book-review/
-  https://www.michaeljohngrist.com/2013/10/why-redshirts-should-be-first-to-die-book-review/