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The Ghost Machine: The Firefly Episode I Wish That Was

The new series of Firefly novels from Titan Books have proven excellent. I’ve reviewed both Big Damn Hero and The Magnificent Nine already for Nerds on Earth, but all you really need to know is that they are doing a killer job of producing novels that read exactly like the show feels – especially when it comes to pacing and characterization.

The Ghost Machine delivers nothing less. In fact, of the three I’d say I like this one the most so far. The more I read The Ghost Machine, the more I wished I was watching The Ghost Machine. And that comes not just from a nostalgic longing for more stories in my favorite ‘verse, but from the absolutely stellar story this novel tells.

Firefly Novels: First, a Disclaimer…?

The Ghost Machine is listed in a few places as the fourth Firefly novel, but currently it is only the third to be released. A few internet searches lead me to the upcoming novelization by Tim Lebbon called Firefly: Generations. Best I can tell, that was meant to be the third book in the series and possibly hit some production snags? Anyway, I think a few things happen within its pages that make the beginning of The Ghost Machine more than a bit jarring.

I left off my review of The Magnificent Nine with speculation that Inara would follow through with her hints at leaving Serenity. Well, by page two of chapter two of The Ghost Machine, both Inara and Shepherd Book have vacated the Series-03 Firefly. No way that happened offscreen with as little attention as is given in this book. But as Clave astutely pointed out: “Well, the television show was aired out of order as well, so maybe that’s just a Firefly thing.”

We’ll call that head canon.

Firefly: The Ghost Machine Plot Synopsis

Mal ends up turning down a job arranged by Badger after an unease brought on by the description, or more rightly the lack thereof, of the contents of a package. It’s got Blue Sun stamped all over it, and given that it was stolen on Canterbury (a nothing planet on the very fringe of the ‘verse) and the presence of so many Alliance ships nearby, he suspects it’s a bit too hot to handle.

Jayne sneaks it aboard Serenity without the Captain’s knowledge looking to get paid anyway. Soon the crew slips into peaceful sleep and dreams the best of dreams:

the ghost machine cover
  • Mal is raising two children with his wife, Inara.
  • Kaylee is co-managing a mechanic shop with her dad on her home planet.
  • Wash is running a massively successful transportation business alongside his wife, Zoë – with whom he has three kids.
  • Jayne is back home with his mom and his younger brother, Matty – who has miraculously recovered from the deadly damplung.
  • Zoë is living in a world where the Independents bested the Alliance at the Battle of Serenity Valley.
  • Simon is a prospering doctor on Osiris, surrounded by his family – including a completely sane and thriving River – and enjoying a romantic tryst with Kaylee.

In the waking world, Adolai Niska calls Badger and cancels his order for the mysterious box after learning that this “Ghost Machine” doesn’t quite work as he was originally lead to believe. The Alliance developed it as a pacification device: You turn it on and people fall into an unconscious state filled with their sweetest dreams.

But after more than a couple of minutes’ exposure, those dreams, explains Niska, “turn rotten. There is the panic, the confusion, the phobias. Uncontrollable horror of the mind. Some, they say, even die from it.”

The dreams of the crew drift from pleasantries into absolute nightmares. On top of that, Serenity is on a crash-course with one of Canterbury’s moons. It is up to River, who is able to resist the Ghost Machine’s whispers, to save the crew from their darkest fears and certain death.

Firefly: Ghost Machine: What A Ride!

My favorite episode of Firefly is “War Stories,” which I absolutely adore (and you can read why here)…but if The Ghost Machine made it to the television, I’d crown a new champion.

I could not put it down. Author James Lovegrove, who also wrote The Magnificent Nine, does a masterful job of crafting dreams that accurately reflect each characters’ deepest desires and then swinging the narrative pendulum the other way by unearthing their greatest fears, suspicions, and anxieties.

The dreams are interesting in that they are meant to be representations of each’s greatest desires. Sometimes that means things you think should be a part of each’s dreams aren’t as a matter of changes in history. These “missing elements” sometimes show up as secondary additions to some dreams, and at other times don’t. I can appreciate the literary need for this, as otherwise a handful of the dreams might be too similar.

I won’t go into details here, but keep this in mind as you read. I also think the things reflected in those dreams, both the good and the bad, make for interesting character development angles. I think Lovegrove handled all of them wonderfully.

A small critique I had of Lovegrove in The Magnificent Nine was that I thought he brought just a touch more detail to the violence than I think the television series depicted, and that persists in The Ghost Machine. One scene that is described 1000% wouldn’t have taken place onscreen in the series, and there’s a line involving a shin bone that Mal delivers that felt a bit graphic. Otherwise, everything feels exactly like what we know and love of Firefly – something I suspect is due in some measure to Joss Whedon’s continued presence as a consulting editor.

It should be noted, too, that different mediums often allow for different means and measures of communication and expression. Facial features, for example, have to play frontman to emotions or inner thoughts in a visual medium while the latter take the lead in a written format. So what couldn’t be depicted on the television for a rating’s sake isn’t necessarily a sin against what might be perceived as “house style” when it is detailed in a book. There’s wiggle room there.

There are fun callbacks to the show itself, and even a couple of “easter eggs” for the discerning fan. The opening scene of the pilot episode of the show is faithfully reproduced (to a certain point) in chapter 18 and it is glorious. I can’t put into words the feels I had reliving that moment vividly in my mind’s eye as I read!

The Ghost Machine is a delight from page one right on through to the end. The heart of one of my favorite franchises continues to beat strong in the Titan Books series of novels, and I am eager for more. I imagine you will be, too, after picking them up!

Mr. Universe was spot on when he said, “You can’t stop the signal, Mal.” No power in the ‘verse, not even a series cancellation, has managed to douse Firefly’s flame. A movie, line of comics, and now an excellent line of novels have proven as much.

You can get Firefly: The Ghost Machine here.

[Disclosure: Nerds on Earth was provided a copy of The Ghost Machine by Titan Books in exchange for an honest review.[

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