Mechanical FailureMechanical Failure
Joseph Zieja
Saga Press
Release Date:  June 14, 2016
ISBN 978-1-4814-5927-3

My father-in-law loved to watch reruns of the 1960s TV comedy Hogan’s Heroes, about cheeky Allied POWs in a German WWII prison camp, run by a strict but inept commandant.  As a child, I found the series vaguely funny, but as I got older I became disillusioned with the hyper-realized stereotypes and vapid humor.  Yet my father-in-law continued to enjoy the series, over and over again, throughout his entire life.

I will also say that I only enjoy the 1980 slapstick movie Airplane! in very small doses, and am ambivalent about Mel Brooks’ cinematic staples such as Spaceballs, Young Frankenstein, or… heck, any Mel Brooks movies.  My husband (and many others) love them.  But hey – I wasn’t a fan of Mad Magazine, either.

So perhaps these declarations will temper my statement that Joseph Zieja’s futuristic romp, Mechanical Failure, was not exactly my cup of tea (and yes, I meant that to sound somewhat fusty).

In Mechanical Failure, we meet R. Wilson Rogers (yes, Roger Rogers), a smooth talking, double-crossing smuggler, formerly of the Meridan military, who jumped ship when that venture stopped being fun.  Not that being in the military was hard – the galaxy had been at peace for over 200 years and even though systems still patrolled their borders, troops had more shipboard drinking competitions and barbeques than skirmishes.  Rogers enjoyed pranking his fellow enlisted, but there simply wasn’t an adequate enough level of profit for his liking.  Ergo, smuggling.

But when a con job goes hilariously awry, an incarcerated Rogers is given a choice:  either jail time or returning to his old unit.  He figures, why not try the military again?  He had been an engineer, not a grunt, and as sergeant had just enough authority without any of the responsibility.  Even though he may not be able to haul in the cash he had as a smuggler, three years of drinking, gambling and horsing around on a government sanctioned border patrol sounded a whole lot better than five years in prison on a dry, salty planet.

But when Rogers returns to the 331st, stationed on the fleet’s flagship war cruiser (aptly named the Flagship), he finds that the military has changed in the time he’s been away, and not for the better.  Rules and regulations have proliferated, which might seem sensible – IF they actually accomplished anything. Any why?  Although there has been no threat made against Meridan, the ship has been prepped for imminent invasion. Decisions are handed down from the upper echelons according to no rhyme or reason, regardless of the ramifications of those orders, and no one seems to have the sense to question them.  Worse yet – there are droids, everywhere.  Everywhere!  This is definitely not what Rogers signed up for, not in any way, shape or form.  And then it gets worse…

Author Joe Zieja definitely has a knack for slapstick humor meted out in sarcastic, witty prose.  He has created R. Wilson Rogers from the same mold as Shakespeare’s Falstaff, Margaret Mitchell’s Rhett Butler – or perhaps more appropriately, Pirates of the Caribbean’s Captain Jack Sparrow.  Mix that “lovable rogue” card in with the easy potential for the ridiculous that often can be plied from military protocol, set in a future where there is no need to rein in a capriciousness in order to be politically correct, and hilarity can ensue.

But for me, humor is successful mainly when it is tied (or able to run circles around) the believable, not merely “funny for funny’s sake”, which seems to be the case in Mechanical Failure.  Yes, there are many passages in the novel where I was amused, even chuckling out loud.  The scene where Rogers is first picked up from his smuggling fiasco is an uproarious good cop / bad cop routine, and little snide-ities such as incongruous marketing displays (an example of which would be a prison guard’s data pad exclaiming, “Congratulations!  Your prisoner has been transferred, and the system is now a safer place because of your actions.  You are entitled to one free round of nachos at the Lumos Lanes, courtesy of Snaggadir’s Sundries!  Happy bowling!”) popping up constantly do entertain.

But to have an engineer transferred to food service putting motor oil in sandwiches – not out of spite, but because he knows no better – as a constant gag just doesn’t work.  Or being able to move between a room in zero gravity to a hallway in normal gravity at will with no line of demarcation goes beyond straining credibility to the ludicrous. Let alone that a thousand years into the future, that there still would be a society so analogous to modern day, yet operating at a level of ineptitude so amazing that one has to wonder how mankind still even exists… I just couldn’t suspend my incredulity enough to stay engaged in the comedic aspect.

But then, I couldn’t believe that Colonel Klink could be that inept, either.  If you can, and if you think that Hogan stowing away in the Colonel’s squad car on his way to Paris to interrogate a captured underground agent (and a beautiful woman, at that!) is in any way feasible, then Mechanical Failure is surely right up your alley.

And don’t call me Shirley.

~ Sharon Browning

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