NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
Fans of "Star Trek" long ago noted that anonymous security officers who accompanied the show's stars rarely survived the experience. Shortly after they beam down, they would be vaporized, stomped or eaten for dramatic effect, a plot device so common that these expendable crewmen became known collectively as redshirts. In the brilliant send-up "Galaxy Quest," Sam Rockwell plays the redshirt who feels the grip of doom as he boards a shuttle with Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman and Tim Allen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GALAXY QUEST")
TIM ALLEN: (as Jason Nesmith) You're not going to die on the planet, Guy.
SAM ROCKWELL: (as Guy Fleegman) I'm not? Then what's my last name?
ALLEN: (as Jason Nesmith) It's - I don't know.
ROCKWELL: (as Guy Fleegman) Nobody knows. You know why? Because my character isn't important enough for a last name because I'm going to die five minutes in.
SIGOURNEY WEAVER: (as Gwen DeMarco) Guy, you have a last name.
ROCKWELL: (as Guy Fleegman) Do I? Do I?
WEAVER: (as Gwen DeMarco) Yes.
ROCKWELL: (as Guy Fleegman) For all you know, I'm just crewman number six. Mommy. Mommy. Mommy.
ALAN RICKMAN: (as Alexander Dane) Are we there yet?
CONAN: Science fiction writer John Scalzi starts his new novel with a scene very much like that once his expendable ensigns also figure out their life expectancy issue. But his plot then turns a corner, and even when we're done, it turns three more. The book is called, appropriately enough, "Redshirts", and John Scalzi joins us now from member station KPBS in San Diego where he's attending Comic-Con. And nice to have you with us today.
JOHN SCALZI: Thanks. Nice to be here.
CONAN: That scene from "Galaxy Quest," was that the start?
SCALZI: Oh, man, I love that scene.
SCALZI: We were just watching that movie just the other day and I was just - everything about it just makes me giggle. No. Actually, the start of it really does go back all the way to the original series of "Star Trek." And, as you noted, anybody who's watched the series for a long time knows, you know, Spock, Kirk and Scotty are going down and so is Ensign Jones and somebody is going to get attacked by the salt-sucking monster, and it's not going to be somebody who has a contract.
It's that poor, you know, the poor, you know, poor ensign, the poor security dude. And so it became just this thing and - first, science fiction and then nerd culture, and then further and further along, it became something that broke into the common culture a little bit. And to be quite blunt, by the time I got to right around when I want to start writing the novel a couple of years ago, I looked around and I said, surely, someone has done this in novel form where the redshirts, you know, have their rebellion. And apparently, no one did.
I guess it was such a low-hanging fruit. Someone said, that's too easy, and whereas I was like, nope, I will take that low-hanging fruit and pluck it right off that tree.
CONAN: You begin your novel, as I said, with one of the scenes and - I ordered the novel from Amazon on the basis of your wonderful series "The Old Man's War" books, and I started reading this book and said, my God, this isn't parody. It's pastiche.
CONAN: And then about 30 pages in, I said, oh, he's doing this on purpose. I'm sorry I doubted you, John Scalzi.
SCALZI: Well, no, that's all right. Never doubt me again, though.
SCALZI: No, that's the whole point. You want to start off with giving people certain assumptions that they think they know what they're going to get. And once you sort of get them comfortable into a place where they think they know where everything is going, you jog the ride a little bit and then you jog it a little bit more. And then you just shake them as hard as you can until they realize that they're going to get what they expected they were going to get, which is good.
But then you're going to give them something else. You're going to give them more, and that's actually where it has to come. I mean, let's face it. The redshirt idea, that's like a - it's a joke. It's a one-paragraph or it's a skit, right?
SCALZI: If you're going to make this a novel-length book, you have to do something more with it. You have to expand on the concept. You have to actually involve the reader in the lives of the characters. Otherwise, it becomes, as you said, pastiche and parody, and that gets old very, very quickly.
CONAN: Your protagonist is Andrew Dahl, who is the ensign in question. My favorite scene - this is not much of a spoiler, believe me. We could go on and on. But he's working in the lab, and then they get a crisis moment. And they're handed a piece of scientific research that they need to get done in a very short time. I forget, was it four hours or something like that?
SCALZI: Six hours, six hours.
CONAN: Yeah. And then the woman who's in charge of the labs shows him the magic box.
SCALZI: Yes. And he really has a crisis about it. He's like, are you kidding? This is the magic box? And she says something along the lines of, well, if you like - would prefer to think that it comes to us from an extinct race of warrior engineers, then go ahead and think about it that way. And he goes, well, is that what is actually happening? And they go, sure.
SCALZI: And it's just the whole idea of what is the box? Why is it here? How is it doing? And why are these people OK with the box because, clearly, this flouts everything that this person, Andrew Dahl, knows about the scientific process; examination, everything. It's just out the window, put it into the box. And it's intentionally in the book. Again, not a spoiler. It looks like a microwave. And that's the whole point of it. It's just to drive him a little bit crazy because he knows this is not right. And that's really his first indication that the world in which he exists has just suddenly gone awry.
CONAN: And because the magic box will spit out an answer five minutes before the deadline, that needs one more tweak.
SCALZI: Exactly, because it has to go up to the bridge. It has to go to the science officer. And because the science officer is an important character, you can't have the whole thing solved by people in the background. It has to go to the science officer, and they have to say, oh, but there's this one thing that we couldn't solve. And he can go, well, clearly, you need to move this peptide bond for them. And then everybody goes, that's brilliant. You're brilliant, sir. Why, thank you.
CONAN: Science-fiction writers, clearly, you have an interesting relationship with "Star Trek" and other television series, and I guess movies too.
SCALZI: Oh, sure. You have to. I mean, there's always been a little bit of tension between the writers of science-fiction literature and then science-fiction televised shows or movies, partly because they have a different dynamic. In a novel, of course, you have enough time to explain the process and make it seem awfully plausible, where oftentimes in movies or in television shows, you don't necessarily get that opportunity. Or alternately, they just don't think the audience cares.
There's a scene in the new "Star Trek" movie where Spock, who is a science officer, goes off on this five-minute exegesis of what his situation is, and the science in it isn't right. It's not even wrong.
SCALZI: And for those five minutes, I just - I seize up, and my wife actually presses the pause button on the DVR, and she says, you must leave this room. I don't care what you do, but you can't watch these five minutes. Go check your email. Come back when it's done. And it's just the bad science there just drives me insane. And it's a real tragedy because everything else about the new "Star Trek" movie, I think, is fantastic. But that five minutes is - I want to set someone on fire.
And so that way - and that feeling is definitely reflected in the book. And one of the things that I'm actually proud of is I was a creative consultant for "Stargate Universe," and they hired me to avoid those moments of me seizing up. And so we would go through the science. And the idea for that was not to get the science a 100 percent correct but to get you through these entire 60 minutes and to the end of the show before you said, now, wait a minute. Because if we got you through the end of the show, then we succeeded in what we needed to do.
CONAN: I have to ask, where there any redshirts on "Star Trek" - "Stargate Universe?"
SCALZI: I will tell you a story. This is absolutely true. I was reading one of the first scripts, and there is a scene in the script where it says, redshirt walks down a hall.
SCALZI: And it literally says, redshirt walks down the hall. And I'm like, oh, this is going to be a bad hall for this dude. And, of course, he gets halfway down the hall and then it explodes, and, you know, of course, and he's doomed. And ironically, the thing about "Stargate Universe" was this was a ship way out in the middle of nowhere. They can't actually replace the crew member that they kill. So I had to send the producers a note. You can't kill this guy because if you keep killing people at the rate that you're killing them, there will be nobody left on the ship. It will just be the five main characters. So my innovation for redshirts on that particular show was a whole lot of them didn't die, but a lot them were really grievously wounded.
CONAN: Merely maimed.
SCALZI: Merely maimed. I mean, it's not a good deal for that character but, you know, at least it made better sense for that particular story. And again, you know, we got - that's what your - well, that's what you're hoping for with that particular show, that there is some sort of internal consistency.
CONAN: There is also a time travel sequence in your book. And the science everybody understands in your book is thoroughly absurd.
SCALZI: Sure, sure. Absolutely. It gets to the point where they're like, these things that we are doing make absolutely no sense, and we know that they make no sense. And it kills us because it is, that whole and sort of internal tension of we know that this isn't science that's supposed to work, and yet it is working. And this is just a sign that things are so seriously just messed up. And we have to solve this problem because they know that if you have a universe that is not rationally based, it's not following its own rules, then everything is up for grabs. It really is, you know, existential, anarchy and chaos.
And most people can just sort of hunker down and go whatever, I'm just going to do job. But the characters here can't. I mean, because if they don't solve this problem, then they are literally all doomed.
CONAN: I thought they might try the old Superman trick of flying around the Earth really, really fast.
SCALZI: I just watched Superman again. And it's - every time I watched that, I'm just like, no, that would just mean huge atmospheric storms and just - and everybody would die, and, you know? And that's - this is the problem that anybody who has a certain measure of a science background or an interest in science that sooner or later you start looking at, you know, TV or video games or movies or even some books, and you're just like, oh, that just doesn't work. And it can be really frustrating. And the thing you eventually have to let go is that movies all have any sort of relationship with reality. We just saw "Prometheus," which was a lovely, lovely movie to look at. But my 13-year-old daughter pegged it really well. She says, that was a really pretty movie, and everybody it in was stupid.
SCALZI: And it really was. At that point, you're just looking at it and you're going, well, if you're going to do that thing that you just did, then you know what? You do deserve to die. Good luck with that.
CONAN: John Scalzi is the author, most recently, of "Redshirts." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. You mentioned the five-minute exegesis in "Star Trek." The - there were two kinds of science fiction novels when I was growing up, one in which the author went into page after page about how the faster the light drive was developed and how it worked. And the other in which the guy said, push the button and let's go faster than light.
SCALZI: Oh, yeah. And, one, I think you want to find a happy medium between the two. I think you - one of the notes that I gave for the "Stargate Universe" writers way back when was don't overcomplicate your explanation. And the reason for this is, is you want just enough to sound plausible, but you want to leave it open enough that you don't actually make some sort of basic mistake that then somebody at a science fiction convention like Comic-Con or Worldcon later on this summer is going to stand up and go, you know, in episode five, you did this and that was clearly wrong.
So what I tend to do is give you enough information that you know the basics of it, but then leave it alone because then the people who are much smarter than I am about physics and science will, in their brains, fill up the gaps of me not explaining it to something that sounds rational to them, and then I'm off the hook. So that, I think, is a secret to a lot of science fiction, which is to explain right up to a point and then let your reader's imagination take care of the rest.
CONAN: The other purpose - plot device used for new ensigns who are assigned to ships is - so that can be explained things that older characters or the captain can say, well, we do it that way because blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, explication.
SCALZI: Right. Come with me, exposition lad, I have things to tell you.
CONAN: Yeah, walk with me. Yes, yeah.
SCALZI: Right. But that's, you know, and to be fair, you know, you have to do that because when you are creating a whole new universe, you do have to set the ground rules. And there has to be to someone who is there for that sort of explication. You can get away with it in different ways. For example, in "Old Man's War," there was a scene where I needed to actually explain the new bodies that people got, these genetically engineered bodies. But I didn't want to have people sit there and talk about it because it would've been a horribly artificial thing.
So what I ended up doing is having someone transfer to a new body like ask - he asks his doctor, well, what does this new body do? And the doctor says, well, I'll send you a pamphlet. And he actually gets the pamphlet and he opens it up, and it's in marketing speak. And, you know, it works perfectly well because it's in and of itself sort of a parody of marketing speak: Welcome to your new body. But at the same time, it does the job of explaining to the reader what they need to know about these new bodies, so they aren't lost. And that's one of the things that you learn to do as a writer, is to take these elements that you need to provide the reader so that they are not lost. But do it a way that it doesn't hang up the story, it doesn't hang up their enjoyment of the novel that you're getting across to them.
CONAN: And I wonder, now, after serving as a creative consultant for one television science fiction series and having written this takeoff of "Star Trek" - it begins there - believe me, it's goes to a lot of other places. But are you now ready to write your own series?
SCALZI: Yes. To all the people in Hollywood, I am absolutely ready to begin writing my own series. The answer to that is, I think, it would be fun. I think it would be fun to do something in that sort of episodic way. Ironically, my next project as a writer is called "The Human Division." We're going to be doing that in an episodic way just as writing. So one episode-length story's continuing on, and I think that would be a good practice. But the great thing about the television form or the episodic form is that you have the opportunity to tell a great story now but leave tendrils so that you can tell larger stories over a creative arc of three or four or five episodes or an entire season. And as a storyteller, that certainly is intriguing to me. The one thing that I can guarantee is that it would be mostly rationally based.
CONAN: I have to ask also, you write this book, the novel ends, and there are loose ends, three of them.
SCALZI: Yes, yes. The - and that's why the original title of it was "Redshirt: A Novel with Three Codas." Basically, there were - I finished the novel and the novel was good, and it stands on its own. But the implications of the universe I created were still - there were a few loose ends. And so the way that I solved it was just as in the novel, the main characters of that are supposed to be minor characters in another story entirely. So do minor characters in my novel, each get a spotlight story, where it talks about them dealing with the ramifications of the universe that I built.
And it also gave me an opportunity to do something else. The "Redshirts" novel proper is a comic novel. It's meant to make you laugh. It's - you can think about it if you like, but ultimately I want you to laugh. But the "Three Codas" allow me a little bit of space and a little bit of distance from the novel itself to explore some of the emotional reverberations of the story. And I was really happy to have that opportunity.
CONAN: Well, good luck with "Redshirts." It's already made the best-seller list.
SCALZI: Yes, I was very happy about that.
CONAN: John Scalzi's latest book is "Redshirts." Among his other novels, "The Android's Dream," "Fuzzy Nation" and, of course, "Old Man's War." He joined us from KPBS, our member station in San Diego, where he's attending Comic-Con. Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am off for a week. Jennifer Ludden will be here. See you a week from Monday. This is NPR News.