John Scalzi's new novel Redshirts starts from a a well-worn, but clever premise: what if the characters in a hackneyed genre story realized that they were trapped by the poor imagination of a hack writer? In Redshirts' case, the prisoners of destiny are the red-shirted ensigns assigned to the flagship of a galactic federation in a derivative, B-grade Star Trek knock-off, whose cohort dies in great number on every mission. The ensigns begin to suspect that something's amiss when they discover that all the ship's old hands run and hide every time the members of the first-shift bridge crew come by, and after a few grisly deaths from their number, they begin to work it out, with the aid of a reclusive bearded prophet who hides in the ship's maintenance corridors, and who believes that they have been trapped in something called "The Narrative" and has even worked out its rules.
The premise has been considered before, and Scalzi's handling of it is deft, likable, and funny without sacrificing suspense or characterization. But, this being a Scalzi novel, quickly transcends the mere conceit and begins to consider the existential, human implications for both the characters and the 21st century actors who portrayed them, and before you know it, we're off on a provocative and heart-tugging philosophical meta-novel.
Redshirts both realizes and transcends its premise, and is at once a tribute to, and a piss-take on, the best and worst that space opera has to offer. It's the sort of thing that science fiction is especially good at, and the sort of thing for which Scalzi is justifiably loved.