A Redshirt is a character who is ultimately pointless. They exist in a certain type of science fiction show (you know the ones I'm talking about) simply to provide a brief bit of drama when they die on screen, usually on an away mission, and generally their lives and deaths are forgotten by the viewers and main characters before the end of the next commercial break. They are a symptom of bad or lazy writing, generally. Cheap entertainment, more or less, and not generally worth getting worked up over. Unless they are real. Unless you, yourself, are a Redshirt.
The crew of the Intrepid have a problem. Oh, not the main five characters, the captain and first officer and head medical officer and head engineering officer. Not Lt. Kerensky, even though he gets the shit kicked out of him every two weeks. Not those guys. They don't have a problem. No, it's everyone else who has the problem. Away missions always go bad and at least person dies. Always. Entire planets get terrible plagues just so that the crew of the Intrepid can save them. It seems that everyone in this universe is a Redshirt. And it's so god damned pointless.
Ensign Andrew Dahl is assigned to the Intrepid and quickly realizes that he's going to die on it, just like everyone else. Well, fuck that, he's not taking that lying down. He and his fellow Redshirts come to the horrifying realization that they are on a TV show, that's killing them left and right just for the drama. With the help of Lt. Kerensky and a lost crew member they travel to 2012 to convince the actors, writers, and producers of the show to stop killing them.
That, at least, is the surface story. But the three Codas reveal something more, as the writers and actors deal with the fact that their fictional characters are considerably more real than they thought. The head writer gets writer's block--he's terrified of writing because he's terrified of killing his characters off. Or is he? Perhaps what he's really terrified of is the fact that he is not writing at his full potential. He's coasting, and using his schedule and deadlines as an excuse for bad writing and lazy plotlines. Lazy plotlines that, as it turned out, are affecting real people. People die, this is a fact, and it is inescapable. But there's no reason to make their deaths pointless. Does he have the courage to use his full potential as a writer, and to make his character's lives meaningful?
Coda two deals with a young man who gets a second chance at life. As the son of the producer of the show, he was given the occasional bit part as an extra when he expressed an interest in being an actor. Unfortunately for him (but not for the character whom he plays) he gets in a bad motorcycle accident and is all but braindead. The world of 2012 doesn't have the technology to fix him, but the world of the Intrepid does. Or rather, the world of the Intrepid has the technology to fix the character. So they're switched, and the young man wakes up one day perfectly healthy. The problem is he's been drifting, not doing much with his life, and comes to the depressing conclusion that being an organ donor could have been the most significant thing he could have been. He finds a recording made by his doppleganger, 'Choose one thing' he's told, 'and throw yourself into it utterly. Quit trying things out, and just do,'.
Coda three features a woman who is a teacher, and who one day several years ago acted as an extra on a cheesy science fiction TV show who existed just long enough to die. She doesn't think about it at all, until one day a stranger shows up on her door and hands her a box of letters and holograms and tells her to do whatever she wants with them. She opens the box and reads--letters. Love letters, written by the character she'd played to her husband. Holograms of them on the beach. The character looks and sounds exactly like her (of course she does), and the woman feels like she has lost a sister, or has seen a glimpse of another life, or another world. Eventually she makes a copy off all the material and burns it. She takes the ashes to a beach very much like the one the character and her husband will visit, and sprinkles it into the water. As she finishes she realizes a man has been watching her. He's the head writer, who was once shanghaied into playing an extra at a funeral on his own show, the role of a grieving husband for her character.
One of the main criticisms of this book is that the Codas go on too long, but I disagree. The Codas are the real story. They are the main point of the novel. If you just let your life drift by and don't try to do anything with it, you are the Redshirt. Throw yourself into your life fully and make something of it. That is the point of the Codas. The moral is a bit heavy handed which is why I docked half a star, but it's a good one even so. Don't be afraid to write well, even if it means your characters suffer and die, provided their lives have meaning. Don't be afraid to commit yourself fully to something. Don't be afraid to embrace the life of a person you've never known. Don't be afraid to live.
The audiobook is narrated by Wil Wheaton which adds another layer of meta to the story.