I heard about "The No Asshole Rule" in a technical conference talk about building out an engineering team. The notion of the book struck me as simultaI heard about "The No Asshole Rule" in a technical conference talk about building out an engineering team. The notion of the book struck me as simultaneously obvious and groundbreaking. The basic premise is this: we all know that it sucks to work with assholes, so let's not beat around the bush and actually formulate an official company policy to not hire assholes.
It made me think back to so many interviews I've done with various candidates over the years, and the pow-wow meetings after where we tried to decide on hiring or not. I remember one in particular, where we all recognized one candidate had a fantastic skillset, and we felt like we'd regret not hiring someone of his caliber. But there were a lot of coded messages in the discussion as well: "I'm worried he may not be a good cultural fit", "will he be an effective member of a team?" and so on. What we were really asking, though I'm not sure we were willing to say so at the time, was "this guy was kind of an asshole, right?" We wound up hiring him and quickly realizing that he was a dipshit, and he became the first person I've ever seen outright fired at that company. For a time, he was actually part of the interview committee as well, and the book was dead on saying that assholes hire other assholes, because he threw a fit about us wanting to hire someone that he despised. He basically made a "him or me" ultimatum, and we chose the candidate over him. If we'd had the No Asshole Rule in place, we could have more openly discussed his assholishness, and decided not to waste our time.
Now, one struggle I had was thinking, well, I'm kind of an asshole. So how does this affect me? Author Robert Sutton's definition of asshole came in very handy for me in this regard. There are two tests for an asshole. Test One, when talking to the asshole, does the target feel oppressed or humiliated? I'm definitely guilty of doing this, so things weren't looking good. But Test Two is, does the asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful? Ah, good, I'm in the clear. My venom is always directed at equally-powerful peers or more powerful individuals. It's true, I can be very blunt with criticism, and I've on more than one occasion called people out for being unprofessional. I've even used the phrase "professionally negligent" a few times. I'm sure this has made people feel bad, but there's something I appreciate about brutal honesty, and I appreciate the same level of honesty directed at myself. But I've never directed this at people who were less senior than me, or in a lower position, generally it was senior engineer to senior engineer. So I guess I'm safe?
The book contains references to a number of studies in which assholish behavior was found to be detrimental at work, as well as a number of stories about specific companies who suffered from assholes, and stories of companies who went out of their way to weed out assholes and were rewarded for it. A lot of these stories and studies, I felt, needed stronger citations. There's a collection of 'Additional Reading' at the end, but the entries aren't cross-indexed with the actual mentions in the book, I'm not sure if a lot of the claims are cited at all. Anecdotes about companies I can understand, but public studies and experiments are another matter, I think they should have been easier to source.
One particularly interesting point made was, if you find you have assholes at your company that you can't do anything about, don't let them be involved in the hiring process, as they're likely to hire additional assholes. The book overall had lots of good tips, I also highlighted the suggestion to "Fight as if you're right, listen as if you're wrong" as a good tactic for conflict resolution at work (or really, in life). My favorite bit: treat certified assholes as incompetent employees. Dead-on.
There are lots of issues I have with the book, however. For all the great advice, it's got plenty of terrible advice as well. There's a very large section on how to deal with assholes at work that you can't get rid of. This follows the sections on how not to hire assholes in the first place, and how to get rid of assholes, so it's reasonable to have a section on how to work in an environment with permanent assholes, or asshole bosses. But I found the advice generally depressing. The advice basically boils down to, "don't let them get to you." One particular story is cited where a woman was being harassed regularly by her co-workers, and in a particularly assholey meeting she just relaxed and didn't care about what people were saying. This example is mentioned repeatedly in the book as a stellar example of how to deal with assholes. At one point the advice is given to "develop indifference and emotional detachment." This just seems like horrible advice to me. Maybe it's because I'm privileged to feel comfortable leaving a hostile job, but the advice seems to boil down to lay down and take it, but don't let it affect you. Man, FUCK THAT. Stand up for yourself, tell asshole dipshits to fuck themselves with a rake, get physical if you have to. Maybe it's pride or machismo or I don't know what, but if I was being treated the way that some of the examples in the book were being treated, there's no scenario that plays out where I just tolerate it and try not to let it bother me. I'd just leave, or make it my life's goal to get that person fired so I didn't have to. I'm absolutely not going to let someone talk to me like that, and nobody else should either. I'm not a human being at home and someone else's doormat in the office; I'm a human being 100% of my day, and I deserve to be treated like one, no exceptions.
In fact, a lot of the "just put up with it and don't let it bother you" advice came off like the kind of advice an asshole would give to people with no backbone, to keep the author and other assholes elevated above everyone (the book acknowledges that assholes do tend to get promotions). It's like the advice a fascist would give to the disenfranchised to keep them quiet. These sections of the book made me wonder about the authors intentions, like maybe he was actually a secret asshole trying to keep oppressed people oppressed for his own benefit. Here are a few choice quotes: "just get through each day until something changes at your job or something better comes along" and "passion is an overrated virtue in organizational life, and indifference is an underrated virtue" and "hide from your tormenters". The book also advises to win little battles against assholes to "sustain your spirit" and tells the story of someone who put laxative in treats that she knew an asshole would eat. This is just petty, childish bullshit (and criminal, in the laxative case). Passive aggressive little wimps and weaklings do stuff like this, and quite frankly it makes me feel like they DESERVE to be stepped on and steamrolled by people. Stand up for yourself, call assholes out for being assholes, and if you get fired for it, so be it. How could you live with yourself saying "yes sir" to someone mistreating you all day every day, but then snickering to yourself because you put ex-lax in his coffee? Just fuck off with all that, grow a pair. Shit.
There's also a section how to keep your inner asshole in check. This was very valuable to me, as I definitely can be an asshole, and it's probably something I should reign in. That being said, the book acknowledges the advantages to being an asshole, especially with regards to promotions and rewards. And I've seen the same thing in my professional career, the assholes tend to stand out among the crowd, and are promoted to leadership positions for it. In recent years, I've actually tried to be MORE of an asshole because I've seen the advantages it offers and yes, I've seen it work quite well for me. I almost want to separate Assholes into two categories: Truth-tellers and Bullies. The key difference between these two kinds of assholes is that Bullies punch downward while Truth-tellers punch upward (and sideways). Both kinds of assholes seem to get rewarded for it, but I have few qualms about being a Truth-teller. Being a truth-teller gives you so much practice acting like an asshole that it's easy to transition into Bullying, and I need to be careful about that - that's good advice. But don't throw out the baby with the bathwater, there are nontrivial virtues to asshole behavior, and it's easy to live with yourself while being an asshole as long as you aren't picking on people who are lower on the foodchain.
Overall, the sections of the book about not hiring assholes, and making The No Asshole Rule an official policy at your company are great. The discussions about how to treat assholes at work, and how to get rid of them are excellent. But the sections on how to tolerate assholes at work made me depressed, and even angry at both the author and the would-be advice-follower. I highlighted a lot of things from the book, and I think I've come away from it a better person (or at least, with a heightened awareness of when I cross over into Certified Asshole territory). I think the book is worth reading for anyone who is in a position of power at their company, such as managers (to avoid being assholes), or people with enough seniority that they do interviews for new team members (to avoid hiring assholes). But for lower ranks who want to simply know how to deal with assholes at work they can't do anything about, I don't recommend this book. For those people, it's full of passive aggressive little nuggets of immaturity, and advice to mentally check out of work and just hope the problem goes away. I cannot stress enough how repulsive I find that advice, and how much more effective I think it would be for those people to simply fight fire with fire and become assholes themselves. Being an asshole sucks, but it's better to be an asshole than a coward....more
First, some context. I'm really big on the "Software Craftsmanship" movement - I'm signer #227 of the Software Craftsmanship manifesto, and my businesFirst, some context. I'm really big on the "Software Craftsmanship" movement - I'm signer #227 of the Software Craftsmanship manifesto, and my business card says "Software Craftsman and Computer Science Geek" because I think that's the phrase that delivers the best bang-for-the-buck in terms of getting across what I'm all about. Moreover, while I liked Pete McBreen's original 'Software Craftsmanship' book, I didn't love it, and I've been looking for a book that I'd suggest as the first book to introduce a reader to the Software Craftsmanship ideology. Finally, I've been excited about Sandro Mancuso's book for a while, I've been following it's creation on Leanpub for over a year, eagerly awaiting the day it was 'done'; when I saw that it was picked up by Prentice Hall and made part of the Robert C. Martin Series, I was pretty excited. All of this is to explain that I really, really wanted to like this book. I wanted this to be the new go-to book for the Software Craftsmanship ideology, the book I could suggest to people who think it's elitist and annoying of me to have the title on my business card. Unfortunately, it came up very short for me.
The biggest problem with the book is one that I can't quite speak about without seeming unfair, or possibly even offensive. But I want this to be a thorough review of the book, in order to help others decide if they want to read it, so I feel like I have to mention this. The book is written... oddly. That is not to say it's full of grammatical errors or anything like that, but the style of writing is very off, something doesn't feel quite right about it. As I was reading, it felt like it had been intentionally written for a very low Flesch-Kincaid reading level or something, with very short sentences and words arranged in a clunky, somewhat unnatural order. Not incorrect, but off-putting. I kept reading and eventually commented to my wife: "you know what this book reads like? It reads like the book of someone who wrote it in English even though English is not their native language." Sure enough, sometime around Chapter 8 the author himself confirmed that English is not his first language. Now, I'm not trying to knock the guy for not speaking English natively, and his grasp of English is very, very good. Again, nothing was "incorrect". However, the book is kind of unpleasant to read as a result of this, particularly if you read a lot. It's not that it's written incorrectly, but it's far from being "well-written" - it sits somewhere in the zone of mediocrity.
The book tries to distill the entire Craftsmanship philosophy/movement into a single book, a point of reference for anyone curious, and he tries to cover every aspect Software Craftsmanship. Since I think SC is full of great ideas, it's no surprise that I found the book full of great ideas. I love the notion of engineers owning their own careers, buying books and going to conferences on their own if their company won't pay for things like that, because the company doesn't own your career, you do. The book has a great analogy of how bizarre it would be if you hired a plumber to fix your kitchen sink, and he asked if you could buy him a book or send him to a conference first. There's a small section on how to be a good manager of a team of craftsmen that I also enjoyed.
However, a lot of the best parts of the book were simply taken from other books. Done with attribution of course, and the whole idea of this book is to distill wisdom for various sources into a single reference, but I can't help but notice how often the things I enjoyed the most were from elsewhere. There's a great section on Autonomy/Mastery/Purpose that was taken right out of "Drive". There's an entire chapter on Driving Technical Change lifted from a book of the same title (with a bunch of extra stuff added that was more in line with the quality of the rest of this book). The things that were not directly lifted but were instead reworded/summarized tended to be the bulk of the book, and tended to be mediocre. The things that I felt the author really added, the original contributions to the topic, were often poor. The Driving Technical Change chapter had the author adding all sorts of different categories of people who resist the changes you're pushing for, including "The Indifferent", "The Wronged", "The Inept" and so on. It really highlighted for me the complete lack of an entry for "The Person Who Actually Has A Good Point Against What You're Pushing For, Who Maybe Should Cause You To Rethink The Technical Change You're Driving."
The worst parts of the book, by far, were the stories. The author frequently regales us with tales from his career to help illustrate points, and it very much came off like someone trying to present a very young career as though it was much more lengthy and significant. Some of the attempts to link concepts to career occurences seemed like a bit of a stretch, and it served to actually work against illustrating the concepts in a lot of places. Many of his stories simply made the author seem obnoxious, to be perfectly blunt. I'll give a few examples.
In Chapter 9 he tells the story of when he was brought in to help another development team improve. It seems pretty clear from the outset of the story that the person who hired him thought he was bringing in "The Bobs" to evaluate the team members and make recommendations on how to change staffing. But the author takes this moral high-ground stance and says "you called me here to help the developers and not to get them fired" and refuses to answer the question. He goes on to explain that it's not the developers' fault that they are bad, since they didn't "kick the front door" to work there. As someone that has worked with horrible developers, I found this stance to be completely irritating. Sure, the hiring team bears some responsibility for letting people through that aren't up to snuff, but quite frankly it's much more costly to pass on a great developer than it is to hire (and then fire) a bad one, since great developers are so rare and the missed opportunity cost is immense. Teams *SHOULD* try to err on the side of hiring rather than non-hiring, but they have to also be willing to let people go that aren't good enough. So this whole notion of not "kicking down the door" somehow absolves bad engineers from being bad is absurd - they DID send their resumes and interview and accept the offer, and that's as much "kicking down the door" as you're going to get. The author ends this section hilariously, after refusing to help fire bad engineers since he didn't take the job to get people fired, he concludes with "the selection process must be changed and whoever is behind it should be fired."
In Chapter 14 he tells the story of an argument he got in with a Software Architect at a job. He gives us an entire line-by-line script in which the Software Architect keeps walking into debate traps and the author keeps supplying him with Epic Zingers to completely shut him down. The whole thing reads like an absurd fan fiction, like the 'ideal conversation' that you have with yourself in the shower the next day where you think of the perfect thing to say to respond to everything, and completely destroy your opponent with your wit and cleverness. I'm just reading the whole thing thinking "right, that happened." And what's great is, the author himself, in his own idealized version of this fake conversation, STILL manages to come off pompous and elitist (two of the main criticisms lobbed at the Craftsmanship movement). The argument is basically around a theoretical Ivory Tower Architect who makes all the tool/technology decisions and other teams have to follow those decisions when building their software. The author, rightfully, finds this position problematic since it creates a separation between who is responsible for the decisions, and who is accountable for them. But he completely shuts the architect down in a half-page rant (that I'm TOTALLY sure happened as described, on the spot) ending with him threatening the Architect by saying that he'll tell stakeholders "to talk to you about any delays and problems that may be caused by the technology choice." Again, he's not WRONG about this dynamic being dysfunctional, but he SURE is kind of an asshole about it.
In Chapter 12, he tells the story of how he was working with a team that refused to write unit tests because they couldn't afford the time. He says he tried for 8 months to get people to work more like him, but was unsuccessful. The entire effort took "seven years to complete and cost more than ten million pounds." Sure seems like a terrible project, but then the author goes on to say "Looking back, our rough estimation was that the same project with [...] five talented and passionate developers would have taken between 18 and 24 months to complete, costing less than two million pounds." Look, I'm a huge fan of TDD and passionate engineers and craftsmanship but really, how is this even a serious argument? Compare a failed project's numbers to numbers you COMPLETELY MADE UP to illustrate how much better your philosophy works? This isn't even an "I told you so" argument, it's simply saying that he's confident it'd have gone better if people listened to him more, therefore people should have listened to him more. Well, uh, oh yeah? If you guys had hired me for the project, by my rough estimation I'd have completed the entire project in under 2 hours for less than $200. Therefore, I'm great. Ridiculous.
The most irritating story to me was one in which the author and his team wanted to give business folks something "real" to work with instead of mockups while developing. So they created a fully-styled version of the entire web application they were asked to build, but made most of the pages 'read-only' or backed by an in-memory data store that vanished on restart. He argued this allowed stakeholders to really see what they'd be getting, building a horizontal slice of the application instead of a steel thread/vertical slice. This worked out great for the author at that particular organization, but I consider it massively, massively bad advice for almost any team, and I think it borders on professionally irresponsible to advocate it in a book that people are going to read looking for guidance on how to be a Software Craftsman. Building a perfect-looking "fake" web site that can't actually be launched because it follows no nonfunctional requirements such as persistence, scalability, etc, is a surefire way to have your stakeholders think the product is "done" when it's nowhere close. When building usable interfaces to hash out the details of how a product should work, the WORST thing you can do is spend the time to fully style it with CSS and the like, because it gives off a sense of completeness that is completely inaccurate. It's far better to avoid using the corporate colors, and even use Comic Sans as the main font, simply so that it visually conveys "work in progress" to anyone who gazes upon it. Never show your business stakeholders a product that *LOOKS* like it works perfectly, they will want to launch immediately, and now you're having to explain databases and concurrent user load to business people who care about functionality and features. Terrible, terrible advice.
The book is needlessly contradictory in many places as well. The author explains that practices like TDD shouldn't be done sometimes but "must be adopted wholeheartedly", but then explains that the way to get other people to adopt practices you like is to be an example, and do those practices on your own until others join in. Isn't the team doing the practice "sometimes" by that very thing? I love TDD, I love pairing, but I'm also pragmatic and there are plenty of times when it's not the right thing to do - lots of code where writing the tests afterwards is better than before, or cases when pairing is just not going to work for a task. I'd never agree with the "all or nothing" approach the author advocates early in the book, and I find it humorous that even he couldn't agree with it for the entire duration of his own book.
The most frustrating chapter for me, by far, was Chapter 9: Recruitment. I think that recruiting and hiring good engineers is the biggest challenge facing the entire software industry, and it's bizarre to me that this is one of the things we're worst at with so few books being written about improving it. It really seems like, as a group, we simply don't know how to do it well. So whenever a book comes along, or even a chapter, devoted exclusively to talking about recruitment, I get pretty pumped up about it. But I found the advice in Chapter 9 to largely be just dreadful.
The author falls into the classic problem of relying on things like a person's blog, twitter, github account, and OSS contributions to evaluate them as a candidate. It's been shown time and time again that these kinds of criteria disproportionately exclude certain groups of people, and rely on a 'free time privilege' that is lacking in a lot of socioeconomic groups. In other words, this kind of filtering is a really good way to hire exactly one type of engineer over and over again. The author argues that 'passion' is the most important trait in a good engineer, but seems to largely define that passion in terms of what the engineer does outside of work hours. I find this extremely unfair, I've worked with lots of engineers who are excellent and passionate, but whose passion exists from 9 to 5. They may read blogs and books after hours a bit, but they have children and families and simply cannot push those things to the side to be more passionate about code. I'm not sure I even want to meet someone who is more passionate about his code than his children. This whole "it's what you do outside of work that defines your employability" movement has been taking a lot of flack recently and rightfully so, and it pained me to see this same dangerous mentality repeated in a book as though it's an integral part of the Software Craftsmanship movement to which I subscribe.
The specifics of recruitment I found just as problematic. The author argues against asking interview candidates specific questions that align the candidate with what they believe to be 'good' (fine), or asking questions that have specific right answers like API questions (fine). But then he also argues against using algorithms. He makes a decent argument against using them in interviews (the most common problems in a codebase are not algorithmic in nature), but leaves little alternative. Don't conduct phone interviews. Don't have them write code on a whiteboard. I'm sorry but what exactly am I supposed to do to evaluate someone? Is it really THAT unreasonable to ask a candidate to code a 10-20 line function on the whiteboard to solve a well-defined small problem? The value of these kinds of questions is that the 'domain' can be understood in seconds. Shuffle a deck of cards. Write fizzbuzz. Find all the anagrams of a word. I can explain these problems in no time at all, and coding the solutions should take just a few minutes. You're telling me that this is useless because it's preventing the candidate from using their "real tools"? It's not okay to make sure that a candidate can write a single function in the language of their choosing?
The author instead advocates two approaches for interviewing. For the on-site interview, a full pair programming session solving a real problem using tools that they are comfortable with. I love this approach myself, but the fact is, if the company doesn't regularly do pair programming it's extremely misleading and unfair to the candidate. So if you haven't adopted pair programming team-wide, what are you supposed to do? It would seem the answer is that you can't be a team of craftsman unless you're pair programming, which is the exact kind of XP practice dogmatism that Craftsmanship is frequently criticized for, and the entire Appendix of the book is attempting to dispell.
The other approach is the "programming assignment" approach, in which candidates are given a programming task to complete ahead of time. Then the interview consists largely of discussing the implementation. Again, I like this approach as well, but it's not always going to work everywhere, and it strongly filters out people who simply cannot carve away the time outside of work hours for this kind of stuff due to their lives not being as charmed as the author's. The most jaw-dropping section of this book is so stunning that I simply have to include the entire excerpt:
"During times when we are not ready to hire but still have applicants, we tell them at the very start of the recruitment process that we are not hiring straight- away. We suggest that if they want to go through the selection process and pass, they would be the first ones we would call as soon as we were ready. As part of our selection process, we ask developers to complete a code assignment that may take at least a weekend to complete. In order to convince them to go through the process, even knowing that we are not ready to hire, we promise to provide them with a very comprehensive review of their code. With this approach, applicants at least get some valuable advice on their code, and we can build a pool of tal- ented developers who have passed our selection process, and we can call them when we are ready to hire."
Man. Just... screw you. It's okay you wasted your weekend completing an assignment for a company that's not hiring, because we'll give you a half-assed code review and we're great so you should appreciate that. This attitude is contemptible.
Overall, this book had some good tidbits here and there but they seemed to be drowned out by the preponderance of bad advice and infuriating writing. The book exemplifies the exact kind of snotty elitism and cockiness ("Testers should find nothing. Zero. Nada.", "only incompetent people are scared to lose their jobs", "asking candidates to write code on a whiteboard is a very stupid idea", "[introducing abstractions early] is not smart; it is stupid", "Developers who are experienced with test automation will very rarely use a debugger") that plagues the public view of Software Craftsmanship. It even does this while the author specifically addresses that criticism in the appendix, simply stating that the author finds this claim "surprising" since the Craftsmen he's met are great. And on top of all that, it's written poorly, which I largely attribute to the author not learning English until his adult years, as well as the fact that this book was written almost entirely on Leanpub with no editor until it was rebranded as a Prentice Hall book.
I'm still looking for my perfect Craftsmanship book. At present, it remains the duo of Clean Code/The Clean Coder and augmented with "Apprenticeship Patterns". I'd recommend all three of those books well above this one. I honestly can't recommend this book to those who are curious about Software Craftsmanship, because I think I think it will mislead then. Nor can I recommend it to those who consider themselves Craftsmen and want to improve their craft, as I think the content consists of a mix of things you already know, and things you will find actively irritating....more
Really neat idea that went somewhat wasted on a mediocre book. I'm a Palahniuk fan, but this just didn't seem as strong as a lot of his other books.
WeReally neat idea that went somewhat wasted on a mediocre book. I'm a Palahniuk fan, but this just didn't seem as strong as a lot of his other books.
We meet our main character and find out she's died and gone to Hell. But Hell isn't just a bunch of Saw-movie traps or anything, it's like a real place, with demons and monsters and Lakes of Vomit and a desert of dandruff and a Swamp of Partial-Birth Abortions. She meets up with a group of people and they basically set out on what starts to feel like an adventure through Hell. Really neat idea...
...until they get where they're trying to go within a chapter. And it turns out that where they wanted to go was a kind of hall of records, where they get jobs as telemarketers. The notion that Telemarketers are actually working from hell is worthy of a chuckle at first, but frankly this part of the book drags on for most of the middle. It also contributes to an irritatingly confusing mythos - there's talk of how the dead can come back and go trick-or-treating on Halloween (har), that every time you get a cold sore or hairs in your ear, that's the dead trying to communicate (har har), and then Maddy directly speaks with people on Earth and tells them she's from Hell and to bring candy bars for her when they die (har har har). She even gets to have a phone conversation with her still-alive parents. So why are the dead blowing window curtains and shit? It's all just not very well thought-out, all of the mythos seems invented on the fly to make a joke. And frankly, the jokes are a bit lame, like on the level of a crack about how all of the lawyers are in Hell too.
Overall, the book is okay, starts out really strong but then really really sags in the middle. It picks up a bit towards the end, but then there's a completely asinine "twist" that's utterly nonsensical and tacked-on. Kinda disappointing, it's astonishing that this book, of all of Pahlaniuk's books, is the only one to get a sequel. I haven't decided if I'm going to bother reading Doomed yet, there was a lot unresolved in the story but I felt like getting through Damned was a bit of a slog....more
**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