by John Scalzi
In a galaxy far, far away, a group of ensigns and other junior officers aboard the “Intrepid” (flagship of the Universal Union, their mission to boldly go…) notice that strange things are afoot on this ship. Everything seems off, from the bizarre over-dramatic way their captain and commander act, to the ridiculously high fatality rate of junior officers on away missions, to the flat-out illogical events that seem to occur on a weekly basis (why do they always send the navigator out on away missions? Why do only decks six through twelve sustain damage during fights? Why do electrical components on the bridge sustain visible damage when the ship’s hull is hit with a torpedo?). With the help of an eremitic engineer who has spent his entire career hidden in the cargo tunnels to escape the captain’s notice, the crew realizes to their horror that, as real as their pasts and their experiences are to themselves, they are actually figures on a weekly television show (“and not a very good one”) produced in Hollywood, 2012. The crew concocts a ludicrous plot to go back in time and across the galaxy to confront their writer, and the actors that play them, to stop the show, and thus the carnage that impacts their own very real lives.
This is a pretty fun, but flawed, book that doesn’t take itself too seriously – though that might be a point against it, really. I felt that Scalzi used the meta-Narrative trope a bit too liberally, serving to excuse rather clunky chunks of exposition at times, especially at the beginning. Though the idea and the execution is quite good, Scalzi’s prose is unimpressive; he seems firmly in the camp of “tell don’t show” when it comes to character interaction. He constantly uses shorthand for emotion rather than description, using bland phrases such as “Duvall sat down, pissed,” or “’Thanks,’ Dahl said, irritated” or “he gave her a ‘what?’ look.” Scalzi also seems to think he has to explain jokes that would better off remaining subtle, as when an officer and the actor that plays him do a “freckle check” to ensure their exact match; this seems to me to be obvious, with no explanation needed, but Scalzi explains it anyway. He does this a lot: “’You met Lou at Pomona,’ Samantha says, mentioning her sister’s alma mater.” That last phrase is so unnecessary it’s distracting: clearly if one says you met your spouse at college, it’s understood that you attended that college with him, not that, say, you drove by one day and picked him up there. Finally, I felt that Scalzi didn’t think through the finer points of his universe. For example, the writer makes a decision to not televise the final show, hoping that it will affect the Universal Union universe “anyway;” since an enormous amount of life and happiness depends on this final show, it seems absurd that he would so recklessly gamble that such a change (never tested, unrepeatable, and unobservable) wouldn’t scuttle everything. I did enjoy the four final endings, which wrapped up a lot of the minor plot points. I felt that Scalzi was at his best here, putting a human face on the tragedies, loves, and challenges of the various people (once unnamed characters who became real people with entire lives and dreams) who were affected by the show’s universe-altering properties. So, nitpicking aside, this was a good read, and quite clever overall.