"SOMEONE IS ALWAYS going to have to die," Ensign Andy Dahl realizes in John Scalzi's new novel Redshirts. Dahl's a recent addition to the crew of the Intrepid—a suspiciously Enterprise-like starship and the flagship of the Universal Union, an interplanetary organization that's suspiciously similar to Starfleet. Dahl might be an eager new crewman on the ostensibly-going-where-no-man-has-gone-before Intrepid, but he's also sharp enough to figure out something's up: Whenever the ship's oblivious, blustery Captain Abernathy or aloof, logical Science Officer Q'eeng come looking for volunteers to accompany them on missions, the Intrepid's lower-ranked crewmates flee, panic, or hide in supply closets. Because while Abernathy and Q'eeng always miraculously survive their harrowing adventures, those who accompany them—especially newbies like Dahl—have a tendency to end up dead thanks to a Borgovian Land Worm, or swarming robots, or the Merovian Plague. The senior officers of the Intrepid are untouchable; everybody beneath them might as well be named Borgovian Land Worm Bait.

Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas starts off as a light, funny riff on Star Trek, particularly Star Trek's habit of casually slaughtering its bit players—who usually wore red—in order to raise the stakes for real characters like Kirk and Spock. In three measly seasons, Star Trek killed off no fewer than 74 redshirts; it's a kick to watch Scalzi tell a story from the perspective of the poor schmucks whose only purpose is to soak up phaser blasts that otherwise would hit someone important.

That's a pretty simple gag, though—and if one thing marks Scalzi's writing, it's taking a succinct concept and twisting it into unexpected directions. Redshirts might start as a laugh-out-loud spoof, but then it shifts gears to become something more, and then—all while still being funny—it shifts gears a few more times for good measure. I won't spoil it other than to say that (1) things get fairly meta, and (2) like Shaun of the Dead or The Cabin in the Woods, Redshirts pulls off the tricky balancing act of being a solid genre piece even as it pokes its genre full of holes.

Redshirts is a fast, witty read—and though Scalzi never takes it too seriously, he wraps up his narrative with three surprisingly sweet codas. Each offers a short glimpse into the life of one of Redshirts' minor characters—unlike the bloodthirsty bastards behind Star Trek, Scalzi has the decency to give even his bit players a few moments to shine.