Mechanical Failure (Book Review)
by Joe Zieja
3/5 Stars. Sci-Fi Comedy.
Mechanical Failure is a light, comedic sci-fi following the story of an ex-military engineer named Rogers who, after extricating himself from a failed smuggling job, lands up back in the military to avoid a sentence on a penal colony. The story follows his accidental (and unwanted) rise through the ranks where he stumbles upon a plot that could kill the entire ship.
Comedy must hit one of three types for me to be engaged with it: absurdity, banter, and/or dry humour. For example, I love Andy Sandburg’s absurd movies, the banter of Red vs. Blue, and most British stuff. I suppose I like to be surprised – I love humour that comes out of nowhere. What I don’t like is slapstick, comedy of errors, or when the entire premise is built on one joke that doesn’t really sit with me. I’m the kind of person who sits straight-faced through (yet another holiday viewing of) Christmas Vacation and doesn’t get what’s so great about 40-Year-Old Virgin but will laugh uproariously at Shaun of the Dead.
While this novel does have moments of absurdity (though not really the kind I prefer), it falls more into the three realms of comedy that don’t really work for me. It’s a parody-farce of military life. And while I read quite a few sci-fi military novels/series (sci-fi military is a favorite sub-genre of mine), I’ve never been in the military in real life. As such, an entire novel based on this niche didn’t entirely work for me.
The pacing was quite uneven. The book’s plot and timeline move far too fast, but there are also some jokes that go on far too long (the bit with the droid-remote control, for one). We hardly get to see Rogers in downtime, so we never learn much about him. He is likeable but he claims to be a lazy slacker which I didn’t really buy. Likewise, we don’t get enough of the other characters to care much about them, which also makes a few of the “twists” rather uninteresting, as there wasn’t enough space to lay their foundation other than thick (and therefore obvious).
Now, I didn’t find it poorly written regarding writing style and the novel picked up for me around the second half, as this is when the characters began to play off one another. I loved Deet and wished he had been around from the beginning. And while it takes about forty pages for female characters to show up in the story, I liked how they were depicted (competent and with as much depth as the other supporting characters – granted, this is hardly anything). The only woman who is sexualized is Captain Alsinbury, but this itself was a flip on an old trope – instead of lusting after a caricature of a woman (in these stories usually someone who is over-the-top conventionally attractive as well as brilliant, and always “a league above” the hero) – Rogers goes gaga for a woman who is often described as having muscles filling doorframes. Her appearance is lauded as extremely sexy to Rogers, but not as a rude joke, which I thought was fantastic.
I truly wish the novel had taken more time with the other characters, to build them up and let them play them off one another more. The banter between all of them really shines in the few scenes they interact as a group. Whenever Rogers was bumbling around on his own, I kept waiting for the others to come back onto the page.