Dead Mech arrived on my Kindle in the middle of a flurry of online purchasing, when I was doing my usual trick of massively overestimating the number of books I might be able to read during a week’s camping holiday (estimate – seven or eight; buy ten to be on the safe side. Actual – one and a bit). I didn’t buy it entirely blind, however – I looked up Jake Bible on the internet and was intrigued by the idea behind this, the first novel in the Apex trilogy, which is written as a series of drabbles.
For the uninitiated, a drabble is a piece of micro-fiction of exactly one hundred words in length. Along with the current vogue for flash fiction, drabbles represent a fast, modern, digestible way of showcasing a writer’s talent, and would seem to be custom-designed for the internet. Dead Mech represents the first in a new style of book – the drabble novel. That is, a novel-length story written entirely as a sequence of drabbles. The book first existed as a series of podcasts, but was published in 2009 as a full novel.
The story is a post-apocalyptic gore-fest of zombies, Transformer-style technology and big guns. Humanity has been ravaged by a zombie plague, which brings the dead back to life as a mindless ravening horde intent only on feeding from the living. The uninfected huddle together in heavily fortified outposts scattered across a barren wasteland, desperately defending themselves from the undead – and, it turns out, from each other.
The mechs of the title are huge 50-tonne war machines, piloted by men and women who are closely integrated into their hydraulic and robotic technology. The story centres around a small cadre of wise-cracking mech pilots and their support staff, based in a tiny outpost and defending the nearby city/states. However, the living are not the only ones to pilot mechs – when men and women die while piloting their war machines, they come back, and their mechs come back with them. These dead mechs are insane, driven only by their zombie pilots’ hunger for living flesh.
The style of narrative, driven by the drabble structure, is punchy and sharp, and Jake Bible has done a decent job of editing down and staying within his self-imposed hundred-word limit. However, there were significant sacrifices made in terms of lyricism, exposition and description; the staccato style meant that the flow of the story was often compromised, with changes in point of view from one drabble to the next and few descriptive or characterisation passages which would have added a great deal to the world-building.
Having said that, after an initial acclimatisation period and apart from occasional hiccups, the drabble structure became more or less invisible through the middle section of the book. However, the plot is complicated; by the end there were many different groups all fighting the zombies according to their own agendas and with shifting allegiances and alliances. This was hard to keep up with because of the fractured narrative, and my immersion in the story broke down repeatedly as I had to flick back to find out who was about to get blown up by whom, and why.
The manuscript also would have benefitted from at least one more round of editing. There were a significant number of errors in the text, ranging from at least one inconsistent spelling of a character’s name to an unforgiveable and repeated confusion between your and you’re. I also need to point out that while I’m not averse to swearing in books – in fact, I’m very partial to a bit of creative and inventive cursing – I did feel that the swearing in this book was neither inventive, creative nor necessary. Given that the drabble structure imposed a strict word limit on each micro-segment, the author could have saved himself an awful lot of words simply by using the word fuck less often. Just saying.
In summary, then, if you like your fiction fast-paced and full of shooting, stomping, splattering, swearing and zombies, Dead Mech is the book for you. It’s a ripping yarn of a story carried through with a decent amount of aplomb, but for me the book had significant shortcomings in terms of narrative structure and style. I do applaud the author for his discipline and inventiveness in sticking to the drabble structure, but ultimately I don’t think the drabble novel will catch on as a style of literature. I suspect the author also reached this conclusion, because the second and (forthcoming) third books in the Apex trilogy are standard novels – which I may well read, the next time I feel in the mood to splatter a few zombies.