Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja

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I love looking at overstock and discount racks at the local bookstores. The problem is that I buy more than I will ever read- I guess that just gives me a goal to live forever. At Powell’s Books in Portland I noticed a book entitled Mechanical Failure (Epic Failure Trilogy Book 1) by Joe Zieja. I liked the cover art (amazing how much that can influence a decision to look closer) but what got me was the small tag line –Please Restart Your Warship. Humor, when done well is always appreciated

Mechanical Failure follows the trials and travails of one R. Wilson Rogers, an ex-space fleet sergeant mechanic that is forced back into the service due to some very unusual circumstances. Life in the service had been an interesting bore for Rogers, basically one long party, a time in which he sold watered down beer, ran fixed poker games and races and generally idled away his with the fleet as it in turned idled away its time due to the  200 Years’ (and counting) Peace.

Back in the service after a strange battle between pirate fleets in which he is the only survivor, he finds the fleet completely changed. It is now on a war footing as it prepares for an expected incursion by the long time rival Thelicosans. As he returns to a fleet that he barely recognizes, with all of the men and woman serving devoutly believing in the preaching of the inspirational, yet strangely incompetent Admiral Klein, Rogers tries to just serve his time and once again depart. As he says all he wants to do is drink beer and play cards.  But fate has other plans for him- but maybe he can answer the age old question: Do the times make the man of the man make the times?

That is a rough outline of Mechanical failure, an amusing first book by the author who spent a decade in the U.S. Air Force , and his experience obviously peppers the book with  what feels like real life experiences from a career military man. The motivational posters, the transfer of qualified trained personnel into positions that they are unfit for, and so much more has a real world feel. I had the feeling that the scene where Rogers, just seconds after he arrived in his new quarters is subject to an inspection and he is found to fail a number of details has a basis in real life.

The book is a tongue and cheek poke at the military, but I did not get the feeling that it was anti-military, as many are portrayed as dedicated, intelligent and hardworking. Instead Mechanical Failure pokes a finger in the eye of mindless bureaucracy and how connivers can always find the gaps in a system, something our hero excelled at.

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Rogers is basically Sergeant Bilko in space, for those old enough to remember the old Phil Silvers show or the newer Steve Martin movie Sergeant Bilko. After departing the military he sets his eye on bigger scams, seeking to swindle pirates, something that goes strangely and disastrously wrong for everybody involved but himself. Forced to return to the service he manages to advance up the ranks while constantly wondering about the strange going-ons in the ship around him.

I found this to be a very entertaining book, and an excellent first effort. Humorous from end to end, with some jokes starting in the early chapters only to get punch lines much later. Some of the jokes seem to be overly obvious, a few could have been omitted and a couple would make better sight gags than appearing in written form. Also one seems to strongly remind me of a Mel Brooks bit, but I could be wrong.  Overall they did work quite well. If you tend towards serious military space novels this might not be for you, even though it has a semi-serious undertone. However it is a very good lighthearted read and I will certainly get the second book. It takes a bit to get going, at least for me. I was unsure where the plot was heading and initially was not interested in it but about midway you can certainly see a firm direction

The Edmund Hamilton Megapack: 16 Classic Science Fiction Tales

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I loved pulp science fiction when I was younger. I read Before the Golden Age: A Science Fiction Anthology of the 1930’s, edited by Isaac Asimov, as well as several other anthologies from that and subsequent eras in High School.  They had everything a young kid could want, space ships, atomic guns, little green men, monsters with one eye and fifty arms, brave men and women who needed saving.

Nowadays, for the most part, it has changed a lot. The technology is much more advanced, and it seems more reality based. Alien cultures are much more varied and nuanced and in many cases much more frightening than early authors ever imagined. Women are increasingly being portrayed as the star, saving the day for everyone, and for that matter women have become noted authors as well. Reading modern space novels often makes older books seem childish by comparison.

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However a few days ago I was looking at a list of eagerly awaited science fiction books for April on The Verge  and came across an interesting entry. It was about a book entitled Avengers of the Moon by Allen Steele. It said it was based on a series of pulp Sci-Fi novels focused on a character named Captain Future primarily authored by Edmond Hamilton, and written with the permission of the Hamilton estate. I had no idea who Edmond Hamilton was, even after reading his bio and with the strong possibility that I could have very well have read him years ago. I went and made my favorite Amazon purchases, a 99 cent MegaPack, this time of his writing.

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Naturally the stories had a very dated feel to them, but some worked and some did not.

In a couple of his stories such as  Door into Infinity and The Legion of Lazarus he uses odd phrasing, as the stories went along his writing seemed to get stronger but he still had the odd turn of phrase. A person that is knocked unconscious is in ‘stygian obscurity” and another person’s hands are “lax in their lap”, another’s eyes were like “burnished crumbs.”

Some of them read like 1950’s sci-fi movie scripts. The City at World’s End about the town sent millions of years into the future due to a super atomic blast certainly did. Afraid of the people from the future (the present really) the simple townspeople are willing to take up weapons in order to protect their way of life, one that is over and the only reason they are alive is because of advanced technology. This is one that did not age well.

Some did, when taken in context. Blasters firing, odd alien parasites, space pirates and ulterior motives in The Stars, My Brothers was good fun although the thought that an heiress would fall for the man that just put her life in deadly peril seems a bit farfetched. But the hero always seems to get the woman in these stories.

I am not sure if the stories in the MegaPack are in the same order in which they were written, but they felt like it. I found the early ones to be far inferior to the later.  The early space stories particularly seemed dated even for the time in which they were written.

The later stories including The Man who Evolved, and Devolution, about where mankind came from, all were very good and I could really seeing them as being forward thinking in their day. He seemed to find his stride in later stories and they were much more readable and interesting, and cover more than just Sci-Fi, such as his The Monster-God of Mamurth that takes place in Africa and The Man who saw the Future that takes place in France and are more fantasy than Sci-Fi.

One thing that stand out, and not in a positive way, is how women are portrayed. Just like in movies where they fall when fleeing a slow moving mummy, woman are frail sorts, with the possible exception of the one in Corridors of the Stars. While she is capable of knocking a man out with a single blow, she is also referred to as a ‘piece’ and other derogatory descriptions. That is the one real standout example, but in the rest of the stories the woman always fall for the man, who is always right.

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The odd thing is that one of the reasons that I read the book was to get an idea about the Captain Future books. I guess I should have looked at the synopsis better because there were no short stories in which that character stared. I am always a sucker for serial books such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom and Pellucidar series, or even Doc Savage by Lester Dent et al, I always like them as late night comfort reading when I really do not want to think. After the first few stories I enjoyed the stories and will look for a Captain Future book to see what that is like.