Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

Over the Easter weekend, I went to visit my parents, which involved several hours in the car each way. To make the time pass quicker, I decided to buy a copy of the audio book of Redshirts but John Scalzi. Because of this, I spent most of the journey laughing.

Redshirts is a parody of Star Trek told from the point of view of a new crewman, Andrew Dahl. Dahl joins the Intrepid and quickly discovers that almost everyone on the ship is terrified of away missions. This is because only the five key crew members tend to come back alive. Everyone has a nasty habit of dying in horrible, and often bizarre, circumstances. As his new friends start dying around him, Dahl is determined to figure out what is going on with this ship so that he can stop it. The answer may be stranger than he ever imagined.

I found this book to be incredibly funny. A lot of it is the deliberate reference to some of the clichés of science fiction in general and the original series of Star Trek in particular, but there is humour woven into the narrative throughout. I expect even people not familiar with Star Trek would find a lot to laugh at.

The characters are interesting and varied. They have their own habits and idiosyncrasies, such as a character’s use of sexual terms to describe favours. This is quickly adopted by others of the main characters, leading to various misunderstandings.

Given the subject of the story, there is a fair amount of character death, but generally dealt with in a humorous way. It can be quite fun, when going through the story, to work out who’s going to be the next person to die.

The plotline is interesting, because of the way it ties into the Star Trek style of events. There are several smaller plots, particularly early on, in which Dahl and the others play only a very minor role, but it all adds together to the larger plotline of the story, which has a few nice twists along the way.

As I said earlier, I got this story as an audio book rather than written novel. It was narrated by Wil Wheaton, a former actor on Star Trek: The Next Generation, which seemed fitting. His narration was excellent throughout, adding the appropriate emotion when relevant while telling the story in a clear manner.

I would definitely recommend this book, particularly to Star Trek fans.

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Tech Tuesday: Voice Activated Technology

In today’s Tech Tuesday post, I’m going to talk about voice-activated systems. This has been a staple of science fiction for years. People giving vocal commands to computers instead of pressing buttons. They are more common in television shows and films than in books, no doubt because it makes it easier for the audience to follow what’s going on. By speaking a command to a machine, a character’s plans are revealed to the audience without having to rely on exposition.

Voice-activated systems are a wonderful idea and something that has been worked on for years. Unfortunately, the reality of current systems can be summed up in this clip from the recent Star Trek movie:

The problem is accents. The same language can sound completely different when spoken in local accents. A Yorkshireman sounds nothing like a Cockney and someone from Birmingham sounds nothing like someone from Glasgow.

Voice-activated technology has reached the level where I can phone up a computer system and, through spoken commands, get it to play my voicemail or recite my email. Unfortunately, I work for an American company so this software only works when I fake an American accent. Our company briefly turned on a feature on our messaging servers that provided a text transcript of voicemails. It worked perfectly if the person leaving the message had an American accent. The feature was turned off when it became apparent that the main purpose was to provide us amusement as we collected the hilariously misinterpreted outputs when anyone else left a message. I think my favourite was the message that ended, “Cheese pizza buy.” Needless to say, the actual voicemail had nothing to do with ordering pizzas.

You can train voice-recognition systems. Most voice recognition systems come with some sample text to read that covers a wide enough range of words for the computer to get a handle on the speaker’s accent. There are two problems with this. One is that such training will only work on an individual. The other comes when, for example, you’re dictating an email and want to include in the text the same word that is the command to send the finished email.

Voice recognition systems have come a long way but still a long way to go before they’re ready.

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