First came Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which reimagined Hamlet from the perspective of two minor characters.

Then we had China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun, in which the obvious sidekick figure amusingly — and against readerly expectations — took center stage.

And somewhere else along the way, Harry Harrison delivered Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers, a space opera takedown, and Tim Allen laughably helmed the fake starship controls of Galaxy Quest. And let us not forget a little book dubbed Catch-22, which had a few amusing and salient things to say about the deceitful insanity of military institutions and the mortality rate among dogfaces.

Such are some of the honorable progenitors of John Scalzi’s droll and even touching new novel, Redshirts, a book which, at first, seems wryly and cynically to posit that a low-level grunt’s life aboard a Big Government starship might resemble a Couplandesque cube-farm in space, except with killer ice sharks and carnivorous rock worms when the crew is on-planet. But their throwaway lives are not totally at the mercy of mere bureaucratic incompetence and disdain. No, more sinister cosmic forces are conspiring against Scalzi’s crew, in the form of “The Narrative.” And these added dimensions open out Scalzi’s story into something much more earnest and significant than simple parody.

In the 25th century (an era that resonates not only with Buck Rogers but also Duck Dodgers), the starship Intrepid is the pride of the Universal Union fleet. Five major officers (who will instantly recall to savvy readers the five leading heroes of the original Star Trek series: Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty and Chekov) are the ship’s luminaries. They undergo one perilous adventure after another and emerge basically unscathed. However, nearly every other member of the crew is at risk of a gruesome death under the same circumstances, especially on the dreaded “Away Missions.” These “redshirts” perish by the score, and every individual onboard dreads the day their number is called.

Into this scenario drops a quintet of newbies complementary to the five Big Guns. Our viewpoint character is Andrew Dahl, a quick-witted, well-adjusted, and likable fellow. After a short time onboard the Intrepid, Andy begins to realize that enigmatic forces extrinsic to his reality are controlling the destiny of the crew. Eager to save his own life and those of his friends, he embarks with his pals on an audacious mission to the past — the faroff year of 2012. To reveal more would be to thwart Scalzi’s deft craftsmanship, which will keep readers turning the pages as fast as is consistent with the protocols of Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics.

Scalzi’s tale functions on three levels, each of which interlocks and supports the others. First comes the straight-up satire, which is almost invariably laugh-out-loud funny. This aspect alone will ensnare and satisfy most readers. All the plotholes and idiocies of cinema and television space opera are flayed mercilessly. Sometimes the satire is highly specific, with the trip to the past, for instance, overtly modeled on Harlan Ellison’s Star Trek episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever.” Other times the narrative tics being excoriated are generically ideal. It’s as if the acidic and comprehensive website TV Tropes had been cast into fictional form.

The second level of meaning relates to the recursive nature of Scalzi’s universe. Like Barry Malzberg’s Herovit’s World or L. Ron Hubbard’s Typewriter in the Sky, the act of creation is intimately bound up with the act of existing, and vice versa, as channeled through the interplay between author and characters. The tug-of-war between creator and creations provides high drama.

Finally, Scalzi asks us to consider and compare the primal emotional lives and the existential angst of both “real” and “imaginary” people. He ends up endorsing the proposition that to love and care and live one’s life fully is all that matters, not our ontological status. In this he approaches a solution to the modern philosopher’s conundrum of whether our universe is all one giant virtual reality game, and how one could ever know.

“And then he got up and went to his station on the bridge. Because whether fictional or not, on a spaceship, a television show or in something else entirely, he still had work to do, surrounded by his friends and the crew of the Intrepid.”

And that’s as close as SF comes to Voltaire’s “We must cultivate our garden” wisdom.

The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.