Going meta

John Scalzi's Redshirts, a decade on

Going meta
Image: Andrew Liptak

One of the recent TV shows that I've been enjoying the most over the last couple of years is Adult Swim's Rick & Morty. It's an irreverent, animated sci-fi series about a maniacal mad scientist (Rick) and his grandson Morty. Based loosely off of a parody of the Back to the Future trilogy, it's a premise rich for a gag-a-week comedy as the two jet around the multiverse getting into any number of problems. There are plenty of these sorts of animated sitcoms that have gone on for eons, but what keeps me coming back to this particular series is how self-aware it is, and how its creators have used their own deep knowledge of science fiction's tropes to endlessly comment on the genre as a whole, and mine it for new stories.

A good case in point came with this season's 7th episode: "Full Meta Jackrick", which opens with what first appears to be a recap (the episode came back after a two-ish month break), but quickly goes off script: Rick realizes that they've gotten stuck in a narrative loop by a little alien named Previously Leon. As they get into a fight, they fall through the show's iconic opening credits. "If we have opening titles, does that mean we're a..." Morty asks.

As it turns out, there's a villain they came up against a couple of seasons ago, Story Lord who's trying to take over from the fourth wall, and he's messing with the fabric of reality. It's all a "bunch of groan-inducing wordplay for seven TV critic that won't even enjoy it," Rick points out.

From there, the pair try and get back to their "real" world by way of a group of people called the "Self-Referential Six" who're modeled after a bunch of different plot devices, end up getting rescued by Joseph Campbell (author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces ), and end up confronting Story Lord's writer to get him to stop writing, thus getting rid of their villain's powers.

Metafiction is a fun premise (when done well), one that's gone out a bit further to not only acknowledge the show's self-referential nature, but also bring the audience in on the joke.

I particularly enjoy these sort of stories, where creators loop their creation into the real world and back, or at least nod to the audience that that their story is aware that it's just that: a story. Last year's Matrix Resurrection played with this idea a bit, bringing the story of The Matrix into the Matrix itself, while the characters of Marvel's Wandavision dealt with some deep-seated traumas by immersing themselves in a world inspired by various decade of TV shows, but the story that comes to mind for me when I think about meta storytelling is John Scalzi's novel Redshirts.

Earlier this summer, I realized the book was about to hit its decade anniversary, always a good time to do a bit of critical introspection. If you've spent any time consuming SF/F stuff, you'll likely pick up on the joke from the title: the hapless crew members from the original Star Trek who accompanied the main cast down onto the planet on the adventure of the week, often as fodder for the writers to show some stakes without having to actually make any meaningful sacrifices amongst the show's well-loved characters.

Trek Prop Guy's fan-made music video of Jonathan Coulton's Redshirts song demonstrates the trope nicely.

That's the premise that Scalzi picks up with this novel: what would happen if those characters realized that they're not only part of a show, but they're just considered disposable props for the narrative?

That's essentially what plays out: in place of Star Trek, Scalzi's characters are part of the Universal Union's flagship, the Intrepid, and begin to notice some strange things: they've got a higher death rate than other ships, but some of the officers do weird things that seem out of character for what a person would really do, they've got a magic box that allows them to solve any crisis at the literal last minute, and so forth. They then decide to do something about it, and end up breaking through the fourth wall into our own world, where they essentially confront their actor and show's writer.

On its face, it's a fun take on the trope, one that Scalzi gives a bit of extra weight to with his codas — wrapping up one of the character's stories with a bit of a tear-jerker. Re-reading the book a decade on, one thing that I really appreciate is that it's not just a book that's living on that single premise of what happens if TV characters realize they don't want to be expendable any longer: it's a story that's literally about telling better stories.

Tropes are tropes because they're short-hand for an expression or figure of speech, and when you're pumping out TV episode after TV episode, they're things that writers can use to help convey things for the audience. Used too much, and at best, they're something of an in-joke, while at worst, they're a crutch that you use when you're out of ideas. In Redshirts, the characters are literally pleading their case before their creator to do a better job. In their case, there are dire consequences for a writer sloppily killing off a throwaway character.

The novel hit at an interesting time: Scalzi had come off of a run consulting for Stargate Universe, and the sci-fi television world was at the point where it was well into a transition away from the "planet/world/technology of the week" format to something that was a bit more serialized. Star Trek came out of an environment where you didn't have the ability to play something back: any show creator would have to come up with a formula to introduce new viewers to the premise and character every week. Dropping in on any of those episodes — or for shows like Battlestar Galactica (the old one), Doctor Who, Lost in Space,  Stargate, or others, was reasonably easy to do.

With the advent of home media and streaming, you start to see shows that run in a more serialize fashion: the Babylon 5s, Battlestar Galacticas (the new one), and LOSTs of the world. With serialization comes the need for viewers (and readers) to follow a story's characters and watch as they learn and grow with each installment: they should be different from their starting points when they reach their end. In some ways, Redshirts feels like it's a product of that transition, as you see shows like Stargate and Star Trek transform from those story-of-the-week premises to their later incarnations. You can read it as sharp commentary for problems that you see when a modern television viewer looks back on some of those old shows, or as a good bit of encouragement for writers to think deeply about their worlds and the stakes that they have to raise for their characters.

At the end of the day, what is the point of playing with a meta-narrative? On the easier end of the spectrum, it's something of low-hanging fruit for a thought experiment: "what if the red shirts realized they were in a TV show?", "What if the old man down the street from the King Arthur-obsessed kid is really Merlin", "what if cartoon characters are really actors?" Speculative fiction is particularly good at this, because of the ability to easily wrap these elements into a narrative.

But pulling the frame back a bit, it feels like something of a growth point for a genre: creators, critics, fans, and readers are thinking deeply about their stories and characters and the form of the story becomes something of a conduit for that musing and reasoning.

One of my favorite meta writers is Charles Yu. His debut, How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, is about a time travel technician who works to stop/save people from messing things up, but who's also looking for his own missing father. It's a clever, devastating read, because the book that you're holding itself ultimately becomes part of the story, which is in and of itself a deeply thoughtful take on relationships. His most recent is Interior Chinatown, which plays out the story of marginalization of Chinese-American actors written in script form, about a struggling actor trying to break into Hollywood. These aren't just stories written as gags: they're narratives that shine a light on the medium itself, and they work so well because they're drawing you into the narrative itself.

I think what I like about these types of stories is that they demonstrate an awareness of the environment from which they've been born out of. Scalzi's Redshirts is a loving homage and critique of Star Trek and the story of the TV industry. Rick & Morty is itself a product of a culture of internet remixing and parody, something that's remained deeply embedded in its DNA as a series. It's those environmental factors that I find most fascinating when thinking about how stories are created: stories rarely (if ever) come from nowhere, and the events of the real world bump and jostle the creativity of creatives, nudging them in one direction or another. These books give a bit of a peek under the hood at that creative process, something that's always worth understanding

I hope you have a good rest of the week. For supporting subscribers, I've got a bunch of things lined up in the next couple of days. (If you'd like to get those and support the newsletter, head over here. Subscription rates have been discounted for a short while.)

Authors at the Aldrich: Andrew Liptak
Join us for an evening with local Vermont author, journalist, and historian Andrew Liptak as he explores the origins of cosplay--the practice of dressing up in costume as a character-- and its rise...

If you're in the central Vermont region: stop by the Aldrich Library this Wednesday, November 30th: I'll be talking about Cosplay: A History at 6:00PM!