Firefly: Ghost Machine
© 2020 James Lovegrove
Mal Reynolds didn’t survive the Independence War by not trusting his gut. It was that same gut that told him to back away from this latest job of Badger’s. The item may have looked like a crate, but when he saw how anxious the middle-men were to get rid of it, and saw the Blue Sun markings on its exterior, Mal knew that little box was more trouble than it was worth. But Jayne had different ideas, and when he smuggled the cargo onto Serenity in the middle of the night, he unwittingly exposed them to being lost and destroyed by their own fantasies.
Almost immediately after the ‘ghost machine’, as the mules called it, is aboard Serenity, the story as traditionally developed disappears. The Firefly’s crew sink to dreamworlds reflecting their heart’s desire. For Mal, this is a home and family, with Inara and handful of beautiful kids; for Kaylee, it’s to work side by side with her now-living pop in his repair shop. But while the Serenity‘s crew sleeps, the ship sails on — to its looming destruction, for with no one at the helm it’s on a course to crash at full speed into the surface of a moon. And still worse: those dreams have a way of turning into nightmares. Their only hope is River — River, who could sense something dangerous in Jayne’s bunk, River who alone could stay awake and then enter her friends’ dreams to try to rescue them from the nightmares they’re immersed in, and to get the ship out of danger.
Ghost Machine is easily the most unusual of the Firefly novels so far released, and the most unsuited for those not already familiar with the characters — because its appeal is how it twists and plays with people we’re already familiar with, exploring their innermost dreams and fears. The dreamworlds are sometimes amusing or endearing: while one might expect Jayne’s living fantasy to involve mansions and women in their ‘scanties’, in truth it’s nothing more than to fight with his brother, defending the family farm against ne’er do wells. Jayne’s a simple man. Wash’s, unexpectedly, is to be a transportation mogul with Zoe at his side. Because the character’s dreams often involve one another, each succeeding chapter might see radically different interpretations of the same person — Zoe as a charismatic captain of industry in Wash’s dream, and a whiskey-slugging bounty hunter in her own. When the dreamscapes turn to nightmares — a flaw of the machine — familiar characters become treacherous and unrecognizable.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the Firefly series so far, but if you’ve not watched the show, this would not be the place to start. Its appeal is more like that of “The Naked Now”, “The Naked Time”, or “Dramistas Personae” from Star Trek’s bench: a deliberate toying-with of loved characters to see a little deeper into them.
“Wash can make takeoff nice and gentle,” said Mal. “Can’t you, Wash?”
“A feather on a breeze,” Wash said, then frowned. “Something like that, at any rate. There may be a better analogy.”
“Damn straight you couldn’t,” Jayne growled. “If you’d gone and committed suicide, Mama would’ve killed you!”
“That makes no—” It dawned on Matty that Jayne was ribbing him. “Oh yeah. I get it.”
Maybe Mal Reynolds always needed someone to fight against. He defined himself by what he resisted, and therefore without anything to oppose, he was nothing.
“Where’d you come from?” he said.
“Your head,” she replied. “And mine. It’s complicated.”
“Sounds like it.”
“This? It’s a distortion. It’s what you thought you wanted, but what the heart desires isn’t the same as what the heart needs.”