Review: “Machines: Episode One: Awakening” (This Mortal Coil) by Robert Stanek

There are a lot of experiments going on in book publishing at the moment, and this one intrigues me. It is a simple marketing technique based on the technology available to us these days. Authors are creating  expansive (and expensive) sagas but breaking them up into sixty- or seventy-page sections and selling them for less than a dollar each. I suppose there’s nothing new about this. Dickens serialized Great Expectations in 9 episodes, which would come out to about 60 pages per issue. That worked in his market, where pamphlets and magazines were popular. In any case, the book I am reviewing this week is about 75 pages long.
The concept for this story is rather neat: instead of the usual “After-The-Final-Battle” scenario, this one takes place in a world “Post-Apocalypse-That-Didn’t-Happen,” in which mankind died, as the poet said, “not with a bang, but a whimper,” when machines simply grew too complex to need humans. So they shunted them aside like old technology and went their merry way, leaving those humans that survived to…well…survive.
This story is allegorical. “Mercedes” lives in a mindless society that follows empty traditions enforced by a leader who leads them nowhere. Rather as we would expect machine society to evolve. Cedes is one of the few humans who becomes aware of her self, and follows her departed leader, Luke, in trying to awaken others. Sort of like so many “robot becomes aware” SF stories. I particularly like the transport truck with a human wired into it as a biological intelligence.
In this book Robert Stanek reveals a wonderful style, quite different from his other writing: spare, pared down, economical. These are the thoughts of someone who speaks little, who does not have the words to express what is in her mind. The story is emotionally low-key, because Cedes’ emotions develop and grow as her awakening progresses. What keeps us interested is the parceling out of information by the author (and Cedes), each page giving us just enough information to want to learn more about this character and about her world. Her earnest desire to succeed at her altruistic task endears her to us, and the almost-stream-of-consciousness narrative style keeps us firmly inside her mind.
I enjoyed this book, although I must mention the somewhat confusing triple title/subtitle combination of “After the Machines: Episode One: Awakening (This Mortal Coil). Since I’m not sure which is which, I assume that part of the experiment has been lost on me.

Definitely worth the less-than-a-dollar price. Recommended for all Post-Apocalypse and general SciFi/Fantasy fans. Four stars out of five.

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