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Cannonball Read III: Deus ex Machina by Andrew Foster Altschul

By Mrs. Smith | Books | March 11, 2011 |

By Mrs. Smith | Books | March 11, 2011 |

Deus ex machina (Latin for “god out of the machine”; plural: dei ex machina) is a plot device whereby a seemingly inextricable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new character, ability, or object.

I loved this book and I can’t decide if it’s just because I read it at a time when it seemed to resonate with my current perspective on life, or if it’s just really, really that good. I’m pretty sure it’s just that good.

In Deus Ex Machina, author Andrew Foster Altschul introduces us to our protagonist, the unnamed Producer of a reality TV show called Deserted. He’s on his thirteenth season of the show and there’s not much reality left in this reality series. Every element, every bug, thorn, star and raindrop are precisely designed to the N-th degree of detail. Nothing is left to chance. The “characters” for each season of the show are chosen to suit specific stereotypes and to provide maximum friction, frustration and frisson between cast members. It’s all scripted out, from the catastrophe that lands the cast in their location, the ever more prurient liaisons, dangerous situations and ultimately, to the final challenge for a new “winner” to be be proclaimed. Cast members sign away their lives and they can’t drop out or resign, no matter how sick or injured they become during the seven week season. Death, for some, is the only way off the island.

The entire story unfolds from the Producers viewpoint; we know more about the show’s executives, production staff, director, camera operators, sound men and the behind the scenes action than we ever know about the Deserted. There’s reality show and there’s reality.

The Producer is shell-shocked after a bad outcome during Deserted, Benin a few seasons back, but he’s feeling confident that they have fine-tuned this location, a remote island, formerly home to a primitive culture, who were all relocated to another place when it was discovered that there were valuable, but lethal substances to be mined from the ground. As you might guess, things do not go as planned.

The Producer becomes obsessed with one of the cast members. He can’t figure out why she was chosen, she’s heavy, unattractive and refuses to engage with the other cast members. Is she there to create problems? Is she manipulating her fellow Deserted by ignoring them, or does she just not get it? The Producer can’t understand her and doesn’t know what to think about her, so he can’t stop himself from following her every move from the safety of his private bungalow. It all goes pear-shaped when he leaves the sanctuary of the production enclave and becomes part of the action in an effort to get closer to her. Shit gets real.

Altschul does a masterful job of pointing out the hubris of imagining that everything can be controlled, regardless of the amount of money that can be thrown at trying to do just that. He asks the question, how willing are we, as consumers, to allow others to be subjected to manipulation, pain, danger and exploitation, just to satisfy an urge to watch? At heart, Deus ex Machina is an examination of free will and human weakness, the all too human weaknesses of both the watchers and the watched. It’s a great story and in light of recent celebrity meltdowns seems remarkably prescient as to where current standards of “entertainment” are headed.

For more of Mrs. Smith’s reviews, check out her blog, Mrs. Smith Reads.

This review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more information, click here.