**spoiler alert** I don't read a lot of fiction, but John Scalzi has been on my radar for a while, as part of a series of "if you like (author I like)**spoiler alert** I don't read a lot of fiction, but John Scalzi has been on my radar for a while, as part of a series of "if you like (author I like), you'll like John Scalzi" recommendations I've gotten. Redshirts sounded like the funniest premise, so I decided to check it out first.
I enjoyed the book a great deal, but it wasn't really what I was expecting, and it was kind of a let-down because of it. I was expecting kind of prolonged Star Trek parody, with a focus on the "redshirt" characters, the ones that always die. I thought the book would just be a series of humorous adventures, or perhaps a "Wicked"-style story showing redshirts constantly saving the lives of the "main characters" and getting none of the credit.
What surprised me was how quickly the book became self-referential and meta. Almost right away, we find out that the various non-critical crew onboard the Intrepid are aware that something is strange with the ship and that red shirts die a lot. This self-awareness surprised me a bit, but I found it harmless and funny, so I paid it no mind.
Then we discover that they actually are so aware of it that they know the "rules", like how if one redshirt dies on a mission, there won't be any more, or that there's a special "Box" on the ship that anything can go into, and it will output enough data that only the science officer Spock character can solve it. This was a little too winking for me, but I largely was alright with it, and ignored it.
That's when things get super meta. Our redshirts discover a guy hiding on the ship named Jenkins. Jenkins has developed a theory that their world is all part of a fictional reality for a TV show created back in 2000-something. He even says it's "like Star Trek", and there's a debate about Star Trek vs Star Wars. This all actively irritated me, I didn't know it was going to be such a self-indulgent meta-trip, and having the characters be aware that they are basically in a Star Trek parody kind of ruins a lot of the humor right off the bat. They even refer directly to "The Narrative". I was bummed by this, but the book was still enjoyable, and this occured about 1/3 into the thing, so I was already invested enough to keep going.
About half way through the book, though, the book takes a hard left turn into wankerville. The redshirts decide to fly around a black hole to travel back in time to when the TV show was being written, and convince the writers to stop killing redshirts. They abduct a member of the main crew (so that they will know they survive), track down actors, writers, producers, and try to convince everyone to change the way the show works, so that when they travel back they will be able to control their own lives. I was simply not expecting anything close to this, it was so deeply, deeply meta and I generally hate that kind of meta. Why can't there ever be a straight parody of Star Trek and similar shows? This reminded me a lot of Galaxy Quest, which couldn't just be a parody, it had to be a knowing parody where the characters were actually actors who knew they made a show. But whereas Galaxy Quest was written in a way that you knew what was up immediately, this time-travel story seems like it comes completely out of left field.
And yet, I have to admit, I read the second half of the book about three times faster than the first half. Once they travel back to "our time" it becomes immensely more engaging and interesting, and the ways that the characters solve the various puzzles they face are clever and entertaining. There are actually twists and surprises I wasn't expecting, and I was grinning throughout. It was a weird feeling, simultaneously being annoyed at the direction the book went as well as enjoying that same direction more than the section of the book that was what I originally wanted.
The book is funny and original, and I had a great time reading it, despite being annoyed at the general premise and story direction. One complaint I have is a particular style of writing Scalzi employed in this book, which is extremely nitpicky and I'm almost remiss to share it, because once I point it out you may find yourself unable to ignore it.
Typically in a book, when there's a lot of dialogue between two characters, it might look like:
"X", John said. "Y", Bill said. "Z" "A" "C," replied John. "D. E."
You know who is speaking and when, because it's a back and forth. Sometimes the writing is "spiced up" a bit, and emphasis added by splitting a chunk of dialogue up by restating who is speaking. When a writer finds him or herself having to specify the speaker, they often pull the thesaurus out and you get a lot of "John replied tersely" and "Bill asked" or "Jane uttered" or "Fred estimated" or "Randall reckoned". I swear, in Redshirts there are about 300 occurences of:
"A", John said. "B", Bill said. "C", John said. "D," Bill said. "E", said John. "F", Fred said. "G", Jane said. "H." "I," Bill said.
I actually have the e-book and I did a search out of curiosity. My ebook reader was only willing to tell me "over 1000 occurrences" of the word "said", in an e-book that's only 330 pages long. This is the sort of thing an editor should have definitely caught, so I checked Wikipedia hoping both that this was Scalzi's first work, and something he self-published. Imagine my surprise to find out that this was his MOST RECENT book, and that it won a Hugo Award. Maybe this whole thing bugged me more than it bugs other people, but shit.
Anyway, like I said, total nitpick. The writing is otherwise solid, funny, and very enjoyable. I'm definitely going to check out more of Scalzi's work, and I actually highly recommend Redshirts as long as you sort of know what you're getting into....more
This was my fourth attempt at reading Breaking the Spell. Back when I first got interested in nonbelief, it was one of four books I purchased physicalThis was my fourth attempt at reading Breaking the Spell. Back when I first got interested in nonbelief, it was one of four books I purchased physical copies of at the bookstore, along with The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and The End of Faith. In fact, it was the first of those four books I decided to read, because I was struggling with my own dwindling faith, and the title seemed the least confrontational so I figured it would be the best to ease myself into things. I quickly got tired of the book and abandoned it. In fact, I abandoned the whole effort, and it wasn't until a few years later that I resumed my journey by reading The End of Faith, which I really enjoyed and then plowed through the other two books.
I felt guilty that I had skipped over this book, the only one of the "Four Horsemen" books I hadn't read. I wondered if I had perhaps been unfair, and disliked it only because of where I was, and not what the book was. So I picked up the same paperback copy I had purchased years earlier, and again tried to read it. Again, I quickly found myself losing interest, and it was never a book that I "stopped reading", it was just one that I never reached for when I felt like reading.
The third time was shortly after I'd gotten an ebook reader. I figured, with a huge library of books at my fingertips, I'd be more likely to read this one, so I tried once again. I got the ebook version of Breaking the Spell, and for the third time found myself losing interest. I had officially moved this book to my 'will-never-read' shelf on Goodreads, and had resigned myself to simply never bother reading this book. I was bummed about it, and I couldn't quite figure out why I disliked it so much, but there are so many great books out there, I decided I couldn't bother caring any more.
Then, out of nowhere, I was logging into Audible.com one day and noticed that Breaking the Spell had been released on audiobook format. Audiobook! This was the key! I could listen at the gym, on the bus, in the car, and walking around downtown. This was how I was going to get this book read, I thought.
Well, I'm happy to say, I did actually manage to get all the way through Breaking the Spell this time. I am, however, unhappy to say I still hated it, and largely forced myself to complete it out of a weird sense of obligation and completion. Less because I enjoyed the book, and more because I knew this was my last chance.
After getting all the way through it, I finally figured out what it was I hated so much about it, and sharing that will be the entirety of my review of it, aside from the personal historical lesson above.
I've read a lot of these "atheist screed" type books in the past few years. What is interesting is that the background of the authors of each of these books is directly reflected in the content and style of the book itself. Richard Dawkins is a world-renowned scientist and professor, so it's no surprise that "The God Delusion" is written very scientifically, citing as many studies as possible and outlying arguments in a clear, logical way. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, but also has a Bachelor's degree in Philosophy, so The End of Faith is a little less scientific than Dawkins's work, and a bit more meandering. Carl Sagan was a scientist and educator, so The Demon-Haunted World is extremely scientific, but also very approachable and friendly. Christopher Hitchens was a debator, a journalist, so God is Not Great draws upon a lot of current events and political angles, and reads like a very long OpEd piece.
So what's Daniel Dennett? He's a philosopher. If this fact doesn't give you pause, you probably haven't read a lot written by philosophers, or you are one. Philosophers have a tendency to ramble forever, carefully mapping out their argument in excruciating detail. There's a point in the argument where a normal reader might say "alright, I get it" only to discover they are approximately 40% through the entire argument, and must now eye-roll their way through the remaining 60%. Philosopher's seem to like questions more than answers, and like to pose tons and tons of questions, and consider every possible angle about a particular point, including purely hypothetical ones with little to no basis in reality. The short way of saying this is: a lot of philosophers love the sound of their own voices. This is obviously a mean generalization, but I have to admit I've found it to hold true surprisingly often.
Dennett's Breaking the Spell is no exception to this. It is exactly what one might expect from a philosopher, illustrating every negative aspect of stereotypical philosopher writings. Case in point: the first third of the book is spent merely justifying the existence of the rest of the book. What would be a normal author's introductory chapter is, instead, nearly 100 pages of droning about the need for his book. Can science study religion? SHOULD science study religion? Ugh.
In fact, the TITLE of the book, "Breaking the Spell" seems to indicate that the book will be about what we can do to break society free of the cycle of religiosity. The only chapter that even remotely deals with that, "Now What Do We Do?" is the final chapter, a mere 32 pages of the book's 340 (non-appendix) pages. Another (mild) irritation is Dennett's constant citations of his own previous work. I understand if an author wants to point readers to his previous work because it might be interesting, or help articulate a point, but it seems almost comically frequent in Breaking the Spell. There's a palpable sense of pretentiousness.
I don't want to give the wrong impression. It's not that the book contains nothing of value. On the contrary, there are some really enjoyable bits to the book, some really interesting points, and a lot of food for thought. The problem is that of padding: an interesting point that should take up a merel paragraph to be accurately conveyed to a reader might instead consist of a few dozen pages instead. Every moment reading the book feels like wading through haystack after haystack looking for needles. They are nice needles, but you can't help but ask why Dennett couldn't be bothered to simply edit the haystacks out.
There are lots of similar books that are more informative, or more interesting out there, so it's tough to recommend this book. I know a lot of people love it, so I think a big part of the issue is my own general distaste for this particular kind of writing. ...more