This felt like polished fan–fiction.
Obviously it's not fan-fiction. Partly due to the technicality that it's professionally published, and partly because while Star Trek is referenced (obviously) this is not a story set in the Star Trek universe. But the whole time I was reading the main story (there are three related codas that focus on other characters) I just felt like this was something that a fan would right.
Perhaps because there are so many references and in-jokes? The ship's medical officer is named Hartnell for example. Perhaps because the universe this story does take place in never rose off the page to become real? Or perhaps it's a combination of things. While the story never falls below the level of competent, it's just not nearly as good or as clever as it seems to think it is.
For a start it doesn't quite seem to know what it wants to be. Is it a self-aware spoof at Star Trek and the genre it spawned? Is it a meta-textual investigation of that genre? Is it actually a dramatic story in it's own right? The answer as it turns out is all and none of those things. So while we start out with some pretty broad and clunky comedy bits (the sort of jokes fans make on the internet) then move slowly to a more dramatic mode while randomly slipping in and out of meta-textual debates. It's all a bit uneven and unsatisfying.
To make matters worse the characters all sound alike. This may have been Scalzi trying to be clever, because the characters are "redshirts" and thus largely interchangeable. But it creates a problem. Because they all sound alike. And they all sound like the sort of people you read posting comments about sci-fi shows on the internet.
There really isn't that much plot to this story and the characters don't develop in any noticeable way so the story while short, actually feels quite padded. Far too much time with people refusing to believe (earlier in the story) or discussing the meta aspects in excruciating detail.
Oddly enough though towards the end of the story when it becomes essential to have people convinced of what's going on…everyone just accepts the notion with little more than a head shake. This is exactly the sort of plotting on tv shows that Scalzi has been taking digs at earlier in the story. Which makes it either really blatant or meta to the level it's actually entering it's own posterior.
And then after wrapping the story up to some basic level of satisfaction, Scalzi throws a whole new layer of meta onto the scenario for… well no good reason I can discern honestly. And then to top that decides that the narrator needs to intrude on the story even though that hasn't happened until this last chapter. Why? To make a joke. Ham handed to say the least.
And then there are the codas. Which, unfortunately, feel like the author lecturing me about "being all I can be" or some other such bull. Maybe that's not the intention but it was the vibe I got from all three codas.
The first one where the fictional writer of the fictional sci-fi show that somehow intruded on the fictional universe suffers from writers block. He explores this through blogging and sarcasm. And it turns out his problem is not that when he writes people die, it's that when he writes badly people die a poor death. He just needs to write well.
And then having again pointed out the bad writing in this fictional sci-fi show (that's clearly based on real shows) and the shallowness of the redshirts characters and behavior… in the final coda our viewpoint character essentially interacts with nothing but redshirts. Fine it's a priest, a widower, a pushy sister etc. But they are all cliches with no depth whatsoever.
Given that I know how well John Scalzi can write. How interesting his characters can be. How sophisticated his world building is. I can't decide if the entire thing is just some meta-textual writing exercise or not. It's either too clever or not clever enough.
But either way it doesn't make for a good story.