I read this courtesy of NetGalley.
I am very late to this Scalzi party, clearly.
I remember when Redshirts first came out and a lot of the discussion about it. But although I’d seen all the Star Trek movies to that point, I’d never watched any of the tv, and I didn’t feel that much affinity for the show – and given all the talk was of this book being a riff on that, I didn’t feel compelled to read it.
Now, though, I have watched all of Voyager; and all of Discovery and Picard to date; and even, perhaps most relevantly, most of Lower Decks. So really, for me, this is the right time to read this book.
I also, at the original publication, had read zero Scalzi. I know, this is kind of amazing for someone so into the genre. But he just never really came across my radar. And then I finally came across the Interdependency trilogy, and gave it ago, and fell very heavily in love with those books. So, now I can say that I like what I’ve read of his work. Again, this timing was good for me.
So, what of Redshirts? Having read Mary Robinette Kowal’s introduction, I was expecting this to be hilarious. And… it wasn’t. At least, not for me. That is, there were some funny bits, mostly in dealing with expectations and stereotypes, sometimes in the language, and such things. But I didn’t laugh out loud. So in that way I was a bit disappointed. As a narrative, though, it really is very clever and very well done; as Kowal also said, it takes an idea at the start – the lowly types of Star Trek etc who never get much screen time – and develops them into characters, and THEN completely turns what you’re expecting not only on its head, but sideways and inside out and into configurations I couldn’t imagine. So all of that was surprising, intriguing, and enjoyable. I will admit that the very end I found … not disappointing, exactly, but perhaps bewildering? That is, I didn’t feel like it added much, if anything, so I was left feeling blinking and a bit confused – there was a lack of resolution, because too much had been added on (perhaps this is the complaint about the “too many endings” of Return of the King…).
Is this a fun book to read? yes. Did I actually have to watch a lot of Star Trek to enjoy it? No; but I think a bit of knowledge does deepen the appreciation of what Scalzi is doing. Does my slight disappointment mean I’ll never read another Scalzi? Oh heck no. I don’t think he’ll ever be a “must buy now” author for me, but I will always be keeping an eye out for his work.
Of Fear and Strangers
I received this via NetGalley.
What an absolutely remarkable book. It’s not quite what I was expecting – which was a history of, I guess, where xenophobia has occurred, and maybe it consequences. But more interestingly that that, this is a history of the very concept of xenophobia. It does use examples of historical xenophobia – of course it does; you can’t discuss what the word means without showing what it has looked like. But it’s more psychological and philosophical than I was expecting, as a way of getting to the guts of why humans can react so poorly towards strangers, and how we have tried to explain that to ourselves.
And the first thing I learned is that ‘xenophobia’ as a word is brand new. Like, end of the 19th century new. Makari goes through his whole journey of discovery about this – detailing what he read and what explanations he chased down – in what almost amounts to a thriller in terms of sudden clues popping up. This was the first hint that not only was this going to be fascinating information, but also that the style was going to keep me engaged and keep me ploughing through what otherwise might have been overwhelming, both intellectually and emotionally. This was also building on a very personal opening to the book: Makari outlines his own family’s experience of being “xenos” – strangers – descended from Lebanese ancestors, living in America, experiencing the dismissal of “Arabs” and wondering about his family’s place in the world. Being published in 2021, as well, and of course, the question of xenophobia and how “we” react to the “stranger” remains as tragically relevant today as it has been at any time in the past.
Part 1 explores “The Origins of Xenophobia” – where the word originates, how it was used to describe the so-called Boxer Rebellion in China – and therefore the ‘mad’ reaction of Chinese people to Westerners and all the ‘enlightenment’ they could bring. And then how the word was used in colonial contexts – xenophobia is a product of the inferior mind, because ‘they’ don’t understand what ‘we’ (colonisers) are bringing, and they don’t know any better than to be hostile! And then on through Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, flipping that idea of xenophobia around and showing how colonisers might be the scared ones… and then on into discussion of immigration. Sadly, that connects really early on with Jewish migration, and then of course the book leads into the Holocaust.
Part 2, then, explores “Inside the Xenophobic Mind.” I have neither philosophical nor psychological training, so this part both taught me many new things, and was also surprisingly approachable. Well, approachable in terms of understanding in general, although again confronting in some parts – like the experiments to train kids into having phobias to try and understand how such fears can develop… and also because some of the philosophical aspects definitely went over my head. So this section, too, made me think much more both about xenophobia as a concept but also about how different groups have approached the desire to understand it – external or internal reasons, love and projection and can we ever truly know someone else… and so on.
I would heartily recommend this to people who are interested in why humans act the way they do, for people seeking an understanding of the way the world is and has been; whether you’re an historian or not, whether you’ve knowledge of psychology or not, Makari makes difficult concepts relatively straightforward to grasp. And he doesn’t claim to be able to explain all of humanity, but the book does suggest a range of ways that we might try to think about ourselves, and our neighbours, and our leaders… and think about why we react the way we do. And that can only be a good thing, right? In fact, I think that as many people as possible should read this book, so that we can be much better at talking about these things and be a little less defensive.