Joe Zieja’s 2016 debut ‘Mechanical Failure’ pits a grade-A slacker against a dysfunctional military

June 22, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
June 22, 2019

The 2016 science fiction comedy Mechanical Failure was the debut novel by Joe Zieja, an Air Force Academy graduate who’s worked as a voiceover artist and composer for commercials and video games. The book, which is set centuries in the future, follows R. Wilson Rogers, a retired sergeant of the Meridan Patrol Fleet in a distant corner of the universe. (“The Fortuna Stultus galaxy had been humanity’s home for a thousand years or so — ever since they’d accidentally collapsed the Milky Way,” Zieja explains in an aside.)

As Mechanical Failure begins, Rogers is a smuggler and con artist trying to play two different criminal factions against each other. Rogers is a bon vivant and slacker, but he’s close to getting away with his scam (passing off baking flour as medical supplies) when a patrol ship stumbles upon the small flotilla of mercenary ships where the phony sale is occurring. Upon being arrested, Rogers is allowed to choose between serving up to five years a prison or a three-year re-enlistment.

He opts for the latter, and ends up returning to his old assignment: A berth aboard “the aptly-if-uncreatively named [Meridan Patrol Ship] Flagship.” Flagship is, of course, the flagship vessel of the 331st Anti-Thelicosan Buffer Group, which has helped maintain the Two Hundred Years’ (and Counting) Peace for, well… you know.

However, Rogers finds that a lot has changed in his former unit. The 331st is on a war footing, the Flagship is awash in robots, and personnel assignments have been shuffled seemingly at random. Worst of all, Rogers finds himself the recipient of an unwanted and unexpected promotion. As the newly minted Ensign Rogers laments, he’d “never wanted responsibility or accountability, people calling him ‘sir’ and saluting him, people asking him to fill out paperwork.”

Rogers’s first job is training a droid ground combat unit, which does not go great:

“Congratulations on returning to consciousness!” the monitor said. “You are entitled to a complimentary twenty-one ounce fountain beverage of your choice, to be redeemed any [sic] of the many Snaggardir’s Sundries locations available across the galaxy. Remember: whatever you need, you can Snag It at Snaggardir’s™!” 

“So, you’re finally awake,” Mailn said. She was grinning at him, but there was genuine concern in her eyes. 

“What happened?” Rogers asked, lying back in bed. His whole body felt like it had just been put together from pieces of grenade victims. 

Mailn chuckled. “You had, ah, a little incident in the training room with the droids.” 

It all came back to Rogers in a flash. The marching, the control pad, the targeting practice. The fire drill. The pain. 

“Oh,” Rogers groaned. 

“You put on quite a show,” Mailn said. “Watching the video was—“ 

“Wait,” Rogers said, sitting upright despite the pain. “There’s a video?” 

“Oh yeah,” Mailn said. “There’s a video.” 

Rogers flopped back down onto the pillow. “I never want to see it.” 

“It’s alright,” Mailn said. “I’ve watched it so many times now, I could direct a film reenacting it. How could you not know that a fire drill was happening? Your personal terminal should have told you when you woke up that morning.” 

“First, I never trust a computer,” Rogers said. “And second, I don’t even know what a fire drill is. The last time we had one was when I was in primary school. I’ll tell you what, Cynthia: between the inspections and the fire drills and the being chased around by barbers, I don’t know how anyone on this ship ever gets anything done.” 

Even as the words left his mouth, Rogers knew they felt wrong. Since when did he give a Sewer rat’s ass about getting anything actually done? He supposed that maybe actual, no-kidding work was preferable to all this idiocy. Any sane man would rather do his job than listen to Inspect-o-Droid issue him demerits… 

Because Rogers inadvertently uncovered a potentially catastrophic bug in the assault droids, he winds up being promoted to the adjutant to the 331st’s beloved leader. However, it turns out that the admiral is an even bigger scam artist than Rogers. Klein is great at giving speeches and covering his own ass but wretched at pretty much everything else involved in being a flag officer. As Rogers indignantly points out after uncovering his superior’s academy and service records, “You even got a C+ in golf. Golf, admiral.”

There turns out to be a strange, rather sinister reason why Klein holds his post, which relates to some of the odd shenanigans going on aboard the Flagship and its fleet. Although the nature of these machinations isn’t hard for the observant reader to sniff out, Zieja brings things together in a dramatic climactic confrontation between opposing factions. I also enjoyed seeing Rogers and his pals figure out just what’s going on around them.

‘Mechanical Failure’ by Joe Zieja.

Although I was entertained with Mechanical Failure, I didn’t love everything about the book. Rogers starts off as a rather unlikable lout — although he does evolve somewhat over the course of the narrative. Perhaps more significantly, not all of Zieja’s jokes and riffs landed with me. Humor, of course, is intensely subjective, and this is an issue I’ve had with the other comedic science fiction and urban fantasy that I’ve read recently.

Mechanical Failure represents a solid debut, which Zieja has followed up with two further entires in what’s called the Epic Failure trilogy. Lovers of comedic science fiction should give it a shot.

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