Andrew Foster Altshul’s Deus ex Machina is a hallucination of a novel that blends reality TV and Heart of Darkness into an unsettling social commentary. The novel shifts back and forth between timelines and settings without warning, and the only anchor is the unnamed producer. The novel shifts between a Survivor-like show currently filming somewhere in Indonesia and the unnamed producer trying to keep the show going while pleasing his new and much young boss. The producer wants to make a show about truth–but doesn’t know how to do that or even what truth would be in this setting. But everyone around him in the control booth is out to make the most scandalous and shocking season they can. The players just want to win and are more than willing to show how low they can sink.
The show within the book, The Deserted, reads like a more extreme version of Survivor. One of the players actually dies at one point, and two others get close to it. The point of the show, according to the producer, is non-interference. The producer wants the players to have free will, though the players are required to participate in challenges and follow the rules of the game. They’re removed if they don’t. The show, like they all seem to, has become formulaic. The producer notices that they all fall into the same roles. There’s always a Hero, a Schemer, a Whiner, etc. Only the first seasons were original and the producer is under pressure to make the show even more shocking to win back some viewers. Some of his team have already jumped ship and are following orders directly from the new boss. On top of all this pressure, the producer is haunted by a horrific season in Benin and his wife’s awful death. It’s little wonder that the producer starts to slid into paranoia and insanity.
While the plot is interesting and the characters are horrifyingly interesting to watch, the thing to pay attention to, I think, is the social critique. At several points, the producer muses on the extreme sorts of reality shows that The Deserted is competing with. Later in the book, he learns about the hyperbolic criticism from the audience. In these moments, Altschul approaches delightfully uncomfortable satire, highlighting the disconnect between the life-threatening risks the players have to take and the fickle attention of the audience. To the audience, it’s just TV. It can’t be real. We trust the lawyers and underwriters to keep things from getting too dangerous. The audience knows that the show is script to some extent, so they want drama. In spite of the pressure and the elaborate sets they’ve built and challenges they’ve designed, wants the show to be real. It’s a mundane goal. Or it would be if the producer wasn’t competing with with the ghastly storylines his team wants to put in place.
Deus ex Machina is a hard book to get a grip on, mostly because there are so many things that a reader could take away from it. There’s the satire. There’s the vaguely theological metaphor of the producer as god and everyone getting upset about the free will experiment. There’s the social commentary on the reality TV phenomenon. It’s amazing what Altschul can do in a little over 200 pages.