Review: Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja

As flexible and fluid as the genre of Science fiction can be, one of them most difficult elements to master is humor. Regardless if it is subtle sarcasm, tongue-in-cheek fourth wall breaks, or knee slapping guffaws, it seems like the desire to combine wit to any type of speculative literature often tends to diminish the work’s credibility rather than accentuate the author’s cleverness.

Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja cover
Cover art by Leonardo Calamati
  • Series: Epic Failure (Book 1)
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Saga Press (June 14, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • Kindle: $7.99
  • Hardcover: $19.24
  • Paperback: $10.37
  • Audible: $0.00
  • Audio CD: $29.99

The first installment of the anticipated Epic Failure trilogy (Communication Failure is forthcoming), Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja was recently released by Saga Press (an imprint of Simon & Schuster). With comparisons to humorist greats like Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, writer-composer-voiceover actor Zieja faces a daunting task to live up to the billing.

At first, the book comes off as a plead, as if asking the reader to accept the fact that it supposed to be funny. The dialog feels a little forced and the humor dangerously becomes the focal point over character development and plot. If a literary version of a laugh track was a real thing, letting the reader know that this part is funny and you are supposed to be laughing along with the fabricated audience, it would be running non-stop during the first chapter.

As a reviewer, this is usually the point when one must decide if the work has potential or if it is time to abandon hope before investing the time. The original premise was sound and I truly wanted the book to be good, so I pressed on.

And then it got better.

The story follows R. Wilson Rogers, a space smuggler who gets by on his wits and prowess in swindling. But when one of his deals goes bad, Rogers’ only chance of avoiding incarceration is to join the same military he had left many years before. The biggest difference in then and now is that the military is a lot more rigid than Rogers last remembered. Oh, and there was no war back then either.

Perhaps the most effective running joke in the book is the mysterious/inevitable approaching war. Rogers’ recollection of military life was filled with hijinks and shenanigans under the safe umbrella of a universal treaty promising peacetime. War was not in the vocabulary of the military. But after Rogers returns to the ranks, he is astonished to find a rigid new military in preparation for a war he never believed would ever happen, and refuses to accept the possibility. The author’s knowledge of military life and regulations and the often confusing “reasons” for some of the decisions made by the higher command is evident throughout the book. This realistic though often silly concept is what gives the sarcastic main character believability.

Mechanical Failure is reminiscent of the farcical classic M*A*S*H by Richard Hooker, where the absurdity of reality becomes the template for the human condition and only our hero sees the silliness of it all. It is through this unique perspective that the novel works.

There is a large cast of characters in the book, but the hero R. Wilson Rogers is the only role readers get to see fully develop. Sure some of the other characters “evolve” or change as the plot moves along, but we primarily follow Rogers, so the readers will walk away with a better understanding of who he is than any of the others.

Humor is a difficult element to master in literature. More often than not, the trap of trying too hard to be funny overshadows the plot. When the tone of a story dominates the author’s intent, the journey no longer becomes relevant, and at this point, the reader is lost. Luckily, Mechanical Failure is able to escape that cringe worthy first impression and actually evolve into an interesting story with just enough humor to take the edge off of the true failures of humanity.

Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja is a funny story about a funny man in a funny universe. What makes this book work so well is the author’s innate ability to paint a sarcastic hero in a ridiculously irrational setting, and allow the reader to laugh along at the absurdity that could become our future.

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  1. Good review, Ricky. The ones who are best at SF humour are the ones who don’t appear to be trying, like Fredric Brown with his short-shorts, or Robert Sheckley, or even Arthur Clarke’s low-key “Tales From the White Hart.” There are others, but these stand out. Lafferty’s stuff was funny, but sometimes difficult to read.

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