An Audio-Book Review: Set Phasers on “Banana Peel!”

Red Shirts

By John Scalzi

Published by Audible Frontiers

Read by Wil Wheaton


The Book:

Over the last few years I have read several blogs in which the authors have pontificated over dialogue tags and the best way to use them. I agree that an author should do his or her best to avoid the overuse of adverbs in such tags because that make the dialogue sound like something from a Tom Swift novel (“I need to sand this down,” said Tom abrasively.)

Anyway, I have noticed that some authors are minimalist in their use of dialogue tags and, yes if it is obvious who is talking, then why bother saying so (unless you’re getting paid by the word?). Others will inform you that you should never use a tag other than “said,” except for an infrequent use of “asked.” Others, such as the English teachers I learned from say just the opposite and will say you should use any tag other than “said.” My own preference is to avoid using “he said,” or “she said,” although I will slip it in occasionally. However, I also don’t try to get too clever by half coming up different and original tags. I use the word that best fits the mood of the dialogue, but if I can I’ll sometimes drop the tags altogether. That’s me. Others learn it differently.

John Scalzi appears to have learned from the “always use ‘said’” school. Okay, he’s in fine company and writers need to remember that no matter what words you use for dialogue tags, they are essentially transparent, or at least ought to be so to the reader. What some authors seem to forget, however, is that some books get made into audiobooks and dialogue tags are not transparent to the listener. The first thing I noticed about Redshirts is that the constant “he said, she saids” were, in a word… annoying. So to my fellow authors even if you are like me and not likely to ever have someone else reading one of your books aloud, my recommendation is to keep the auditory element in your mind as you write.

Okay, that’s my rant this week, now let’s get to the review…

My first impression, from the name (an obvious reference to Star Trek and those intrepid extras who were doomed to die each week before the first commercial) was that this was a cute idea and could be a marvelously fun story. Somehow I thought this story might be a clever and satirical homage to the original Star trek series. I was only partially right.

It was a clever idea and I think it was meant as an homage to a classic SF series, but I had forgotten what this author had presented as an homage to one of my favorite classics of SF, Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper. I reviewed Mister Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation some time back and recall saying that while it had been written as an updated version of the original, it is already dated whereas Piper’s story holds up as a sort of futuristic period piece.

It’s a shame that this was a good idea, but not especially well-executed. I was particularly put off by the easy acceptance by everyone that they were living in the fictional universe of a poorly written SF TV show. Oh, everyone doubts it on first hearing but when the character explaining it insists it is true it’s like they all just nod and say, “Well of course… That’s the only logical explanation.” Having them say it is impossible with one breath does not excuse the universal acceptance of the idea with the next.

My other complaint is that the pseudo-science is even worse than in some of the poorer episodes of the original Star Trek. They all know that time travel is impossible, but go ahead and it anyway. They also have a time limit to how long they can stay out of their own time – six days – because their molecules cannot be in two places at once any longer than that… and then that salient “fact” is happily forgotten at the end in order to save the life of one of the characters.

That is just one of the many problems with the story not the least of which is that Mister Scalzi did not seem to know when to end it. There was a long whining rant (I think it ran two hours on the recording) after the actual story was over in which the story writer of the bad SF series whines that he now has writers block because he knows that whenever he kills a character they really die in their fictional universe. Slightly amusing in concept but horribly annoying to listen to. I eventually decided he deserved to have writer’s block and maybe the world would be better off that way, so naturally he got over it. There were also rather long appendices showing what happened to various other characters. The problem is; we knew what was going to happen to them already. The story told us that. There really was no reason to actually show it unless the characters who said how it was going to turn out got it wrong, but no, there were correct so there was another hour or two of redundant and unnecessary story-telling.

Is this how John Scalzi write his original fiction too? I admit I have not read his other stuff, but between this and Fuzzy Nation I am not rushing out for another of his books.


The Audiobook:

Does anyone remember how I described Wil Wheaton’s reading of Fuzzy Nation? I basically accused the publisher of speeding up the track to save a disk but then playing a little digital magic to keep the reader from sounding like Alvin and the Chipmunks’ older brother, the one who sold Fuller brushes because he didn’t have the voice for a singing career.

Well, I am happy to admit that while Mister Wheaton still reads fairly rapidly it is not supernaturally fast, so I must have been correct about a cheapskate producer. However, my other criticism stands. All his characters sound alike. He does nothing whatsoever to differentiate them when by pitching his voice differently changing his pace or inflections. Nothing. There is no difference from one character to the next so if you are not listening intently and keeping track of who is supposed to be talking, you cannot tell; not from the way he reads them and since Mister Scalzi’s characters nearly all speak alike too it gets confusing trying to keep track of just who is saying what.

I frequently complain about readers who use “Funny voices” to differentiate their characters, but this was taking it entirely too far the other way. A professional reader, as Mister Wheaton supposedly is, ought to be able to find some middle ground, but…

So all told it’s a great idea and should have been fun, but the story is too flawed and does not really work well and the reading of this edition is flat and less than interesting. So unless you actually know Wil Wheaton and John Scalzi, this might be a good one to pass on.

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