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Saturday, August 18, 2012
The book opens deep beneath the streets of New York City, where, unbeknownst to the city's residents, Top Secret Government experiments are being carried out on the city's homeless population. The subjects are being injected with microscopic nanobots that are supposed to accelerate the body's natural healing processes. While the experiments are successful in that the body suddenly has the power to not only heal itself of minor wounds, but to regenerate lost limbs. Medical miracle? Decidedly so, if it wasn't for the side effects. It seems that in order to carry out the functions for which they were designed, the nanobots consume an awful lot of the body's energy, which creates in the subject an insatiable need to feed, and if that need is not sated, the nanobots will start to consume the host in order to obtain that energy. Even if the host dies, the nanobots continue to animate the dead tissue, driving it to devour living organisms in order to obtain the energy it needs. Under the experimental conditions, before things can progress to this point, the "infected" is subjected to a 50,000 volt taser blast, which effectively kills off the nanobots.
It would seem that they have everything under control—until one of their infected subjects manages to escape. Driven by this insatiable hunger, he attacks and bites the first person he sees, a young woman by the name of Jess. The fear of being returned to the underground lab outweighs the need to feed, and out man is on the run, leaving in his path one bitten body after another. It is only then, when Jess takes ill, dies, and comes back, that we learn that these nanobots are living organisms with the ability to reproduce, and they can be transferred from host to host. With the hopes of containing the outbreak, Jess and her husband are "kidnapped" and taken below ground. It's too late for her, but they are able to save Jack. But saving Jack was not done out of the goodness of their hearts, an attempt to atone for their sins. Something more sinister is at work here. Will Jack fall victim to the government scientists, or will he be able to, with the help of his new-found allies, escape the underground labs into a city gone to hell, a city where the dead outnumber the living?
When I first started Machines of the Dead, I thought I was going to be in for some trouble. I tend to be a purist where my monsters are concerned—werewolves are half-man/half-animal killing machines, NOT men who turn into oversized wolves; vampires are undead creatures of the night that prey on humans to survive, not romanticized objects of affection that want to date us, NOT eat us; and zombie are reanimated corpses with a hunger for brains and human flesh—so to attempt to blend horror with Science Fiction (a genre I avoid due to the tendency to get overly technical), I admit to having some reservations. The origin of the zombie in horror fiction has always been ambiguous—radiation caused by an asteroid passing too close to the earth; God's punishment on the sinners; medical experiments gone awry; Haitian servants run amuck; alien possession. There has never been a definitive cause for the zombie outbreak; theories, yes, but never, in my limited exposure to zombie fiction, has there been one true cause of the outbreak. Usually it's the "Why is this happening?", with no one around to supply the answer. So when the cause of the outbreak was spelled out so clearly as being purely scientific and not supernatural, I wasn't sure how I felt about it. I'm still not sure. What I do know is that I enjoyed the book immensely.
Part of the success, I feel, is the author's refusal to get bogged down in the scientific aspect of the novel and focus more on the horror elements, that being the zombies. He explains what the nanobots are and what they are supposed to do without going into all the details as to how they do what they do. Other—and I don't want to say more experienced authors, but that is the first phrase that comes to mind, so I'm going with it—more experienced authors might attempt to go into the scientific details as to how the nanobots worked, and if that had been done, Bernstein would have lost me as a reader.
In addition to focusing on the zombies, Bernstein also focuses on character development, even those minor characters who, because of the attention that's been given to them, are killed off, much to the surprise of the reader because it seemed as if they were being groomed for a larger role. It was reminiscent of the discussion they had on The Talking Dead, the discussion panel that airs following showings of The Walking Dead, when they warned the viewers not to get too attached to any of the characters because any and all were in danger of being killed off. That helps to create a sense of urgency as you read, and you find yourself sitting on the edge of your seat hoping that certain characters are going to make it through to the end. And then there are characters who are supposed to be the good guys that you take an immediate disliking to and you hope they get killed off some time soon.
As much as I enjoyed the book, it is not without its flaws, the biggest is the tendency to repeat certain bits of information that were recently revealed in detail. One example that jumps to mind is when the reader is being given Zaun's backstory—and maybe the reason this example comes so quickly to mind is because I can't stand the character of Zaun and any flaws I find might tend to be magnified. The author has just finished giving us a complete inventory of the types of martial arts Zaun has been schooled in, and a page or two later, it's mentioned again. In detail. It's almost as if Bernstein didn't trust the reader enough to remember what was previously spelled out. There were a couple of other minor elements that stood out for me like a sore thumb, and it's something that needs the be shared equally between author and publisher, but I place most of the blame on the publisher. I'm not going to spell it out here because the average reader probably won't even notice it, but it's something I did bring to the author's attention.
The other issue I had was the lack of zombie action. It's there, but I wanted more. Granted, this is the first book in a proposed trilogy, so I'm willing to forego it at the moment. The central focus of this first novel was to create the apocalyptic background against which the book is set and and to introduce us to the characters.
Overall, I feel Bernstein did an excellent job of blending the genres of horror and SciFi. The pacing of the book, for the most part, is swift and fluid, like a rapidly moving river, but there are parts where is does grind to a halt as we are fed a character's (read Zaun) backstory. Again, maybe I'm harping on this because of who the character is, but I feel releasing bits of the characters past in bits and pieces would have helped improve the flow instead of feeding it to us in one fell swoop. I have a feeling, though, that we won't have this issue in the second installment, as the main characters have already been introduced.
The bottom line: Is it worth reading? Most definitely. In a market that is quickly becoming over-saturated with zombie novels, Machines of the Dead offers a refreshing new look into the cause of the outbreak, and as innovative as it is, you won't see any running zombies here... and that's a good thing. So go ahead and pick it up. You won't be disappointed. Then again, maybe you will, as the book does leave you hanging in the end, and you'll be chomping at the bit for Book 2, which isn't available yet. You've been warned.