Comedy is a tricky beast, especially in science fiction. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is unquestionably a towering achievement of the form, but after that, opinions vary wildly (we’d wager John Scalzi has equal numbers of fans who want him to stop trying to be funny, or stop writing books that are so serious). It’s rare to find a SF book that can do satire without being preachy, comedy without being entirely silly (not that a little silliness is a bad thing), and still manage toss a little “science fiction” into the mix. Joe Zieja’s debut, Mechanical Failure (the first part of the Epic Fail trilogy, which gives you a hint as to what you’re in for) makes as good a bid as we’ve seen in quite some time, diving headfirst into full-on military sci-fi parody and making it look easy.
R. Wilson Rogers (the “R” stands for Roger) is a few years out from his stint in the military and living a modestly successful existence as a smuggler. When he’s caught quite literally in the middle of a dispute between competing bands of space pirates, his last-man-standing (more or less) status leaves him with a trashed ship, and in the custody of a military bureaucracy unsure if he deserves a medal or a lengthy prison sentence (they decide on both, which makes for a disconcerting intake process). He’s then afforded a compromised choice: three years in the Navy, or five years in jail. It’s not a terribly difficult decision: the galaxy has been at peace for 200 years (and counting), an unprecedented run that doesn’t appear to be in danger of ending anytime soon. Considering the worst part of Roger’s previous life as a Navy engineer was the hangovers, he jumps at the chance to reenlist.
The Navy that he returns to, however, is much changed. The drunk and lazy officers he knew and loved have been replaced with a new breed of nitpickers obsessed with mostly useless rules, as suddenly a dusty shelf or unkempt beard is treated like a criminal offense. The flagship (called Flagship) is barely functioning: cross-training has ensured that engineers are doing the cooking, zookeepers are running the engines, and the Admiral running the show is so demanding, his aides keep killing themselves (a problem dealt with easily enough: just turn off the gravity in their quarters). War with an alien species looms on the horizon, maybe, but it hardly matters: the crew of Flagship is barely in a condition to change a tire.
Amidst all of this, the droids running many of the ship’s essential functions seem to be taking on greater and greater responsibilities, even if no one quite asked them to. Rogers is our tour guide on this ship of fools, and he’s frequently the only one who can see the ridiculousness of his Kafka-esque surroundings. He’s reinstated at an unwanted officer rank, and quickly proceeds to accumulate honors and promotions as fast as he can manage to bungle his assignments (the platoon of droid soldiers he’s tasked to train quickly reduces itself to rubble thanks to a misunderstanding and Roger’s inability to keep ketchup off of the touch screen of his tablet). Without leaving the ship or doing anything that doesn’t result in massive property destruction, Rogers is promoted, then promoted again. Now aide to the Admiral, he’s left to approve unreviewed orders all day and find a way to avoid killing himself.
Zieja comes to fiction writing with over a decade of experience in military life, and clearly knows his stuff when it comes to the absurdities of profligate bureaucracy. His targets include a frequently unproductive obsession with rules and regulations, bad food, and a system of promotion that rarely leaves the best and brightest running the show. Mechanical Failure often plays like a sci-fi riff on the 1961 satire Catch-22; as with Joseph Heller’s landmark work, you don’t have to have experienced basic training in order to relate: we’ve all been beaten down by paperwork or forced to adhere to rules that defy logic, even if only while at the DMV or talking to the insurance company (especially while talking to the insurance company).
What’s more, Zieja is legitimately funny, and unafraid to load down every page with potential zingers in the hope that a good number of them will land. His hit-to-miss ratio is well above basic training levels—Rogers perfectly sarcastic worldview skews every scene, and the bordering-on-stupidity of the author’s robots is inspired (when one of them is ordered to follow Rogers around surreptitiously, it announces its presence from a nearby garbage can by stating, “CALL FUNCTION [MAINTAIN CLEVER HIDING PLACE]” at considerable volume). With plenty SF on the shelves all too eager to remind us that Earth will soon be a giant swimming pool (provided we haven’t otherwise destroyed it first), it’s incredibly rare—and welcome—to find one that manages to toe the lines between sharp satire, social commentary, and ripping good yarn quite so well. CALL FUNCTION [MENACINGLY DEMAND SEQUEL].