Top critical review
Decent "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Aren't Dead", but the bad may easily outweigh the good for some
Reviewed in the United States on June 8, 2016
Redshirts, which could have been called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Hijack the Ship to Cuba, features an endearing premise that Scalzi admits (in these same pages) has been visited before by other authors in a variety of media, that a character in a work of fiction gains awareness of the "Narrative" dictating their actions, and tries to understand or change their fate.
If that isn't meta enough for you, the later sections of the book only take this to excess. This book was published by Tor. Will Scalzi mention the anonymous browsing network Tor in his books by Tor? You bet he does. It's that kind of book.
It should have been a good match for me, since I enjoy Scalzi, heady SF, and Star Trek (which is not so heady SF)... but it was an uneven read and I can see how the bad can easily outweigh the good for some.
By way of clarification I should first retract "bad". Redshirts is not bad, not even parts of Redshirts is bad. Scalzi spends the entirety of Coda I expressing the difference between good, bad and just uninspired, which I partially agree with, but which unfortunately is an awkward meta conversation to have in a book that has some of the same issues it brings up. Bad is the show the characters are in. A large part of Redshirts is just uninspired.
Many of the other 3-star reviews here have got it right. If the book consists of a main novel with three acts, followed by three extended codas (really just connected short stories), and if I were appraising these each separately, I would have to put it like this: First act is great, everything working together from humor to tempo. Second act, really pretty competant, but not satisfying, if only because it is here that you see everything that is going to happen in the last third of the book and how that's going to resolve, and that is the weakest section of the entire thing (including the last three stories). The pacing is perfect in the first part, drags in the second, and is rushed in the third. Even the humor seems to work better in the beginning than the end. The only thing that's constant is the quality of the dialogue. It is a quick read, though. If you enjoyed at least the first part, you'll likely finish it in a single sitting.
The codas are even more uneven, but the most problematic thing about them is each follows characters introduced in the last third of the book, some of them only having a couple of lines. It is awkward for characters like that to each have their own short story - and really these are all the codas of their stories. It isn't "a novel with three codas" as in codas to the novel, the codas are caps on the ends of three individual but interconnected stories whose first parts are either present in the novel proper or merely inferred.
Coda I is separate from the others because it doesn't exist to give us closure or detail about its principal character. It exists to discuss the bad name SF has acquired for itself in television over the last fifty years or so. It is an especially unfortunate problem to have since we live in an age where smarter, tighter audiences are starting to go looking to television for quality and films and books are becoming broader and dumber (something I believe is equal fault viewers, exec groupthink, and because challenging scripts play poorly when subbed in Southeast Asia, but that's getting off the point). In fact all of Coda I is off the point, other than being conceived as a humor piece, and I really think should have been omitted. It is neither the complex discussion it should have been about where SF is going and why, nor does it give us anything useful or new about its principal character. I would have been much happier if Scalzi had left the character out of it and written an updated multimedia counterpart to Michael Swanwick's A User's Guide to the Postmoderns. Definitely the most 'meta' of the sections (yes, I use Scrivener, too, man, probably shouldn't have compiled this part).
Coda II was my least favorite. It has nothing much to say, and what it does have to say I really don't think is worth saying. In keeping with the meta-theme, Coda II actually tells you it has nothing to say that you haven't already heard from overbearing relatives, in almost those words, no less.
The plot of Coda III, which has the most minor character in the entire book as its subject, is the most nonsensical and belief-unsuspending section, and this beats out even a fictional unvierse co-existing with a fictional universe co-existing with a 'real'-er one, flying a ship into a black hole, wishing bits of a narrative into place, and living like a yeti in a tunnel for years with a portable potty as your only friend. The end wraps up nicely. It is a bittersweet, satisfying conclusion that makes you go "Awww." But the character's motivation to do any of the things she does still makes zero sense to me.
This book is so short, that it's honestly still a fine introduction to the author. The central idea and novel proper work well enough that I don't see how it will really turn anyone away who would be interested in his more well-received titles.