Machine of Death

Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki

The concept (or gimmick, if you prefer) for this anthology of stories came from an episode of Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics. In a nutshell, each of these stories is set in a world in which a machine has been invented that tells you how you will die. To quote from the back cover: “The machine had been invented a few years ago: a machine that could tell, from just a sample of your blood, how you were going to die. It didn’t give you the date and it didn’t give you specifics. It just spat out a sliver of paper upon which were printed, in careful block letters, the words DROWNED or CANCER or OLD AGE or CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN. It let people know how they were going to die.

The problem with the machine is that nobody really knew how it worked, which wouldn’t actually have been that much of a problem if the machine worked as well as we wished it would. But the machine was frustratingly vague in its predictions: dark, and seemingly delighting in the ambiguities of language. OLD AGE, it had already turned out, could mean either dying of natural causes, or shot by a bedridden man in a botched home invasion. The machine captured that old-world sense of irony in death — you can know how it’s going to happen, but you’ll still be surprised when it does.”

Reading the premise, I would be easy to suspect redundancy in the stories, as with any gimmick. However, each of these authors pushes the boundaries of storytelling, using the concept of the machine to present a variety of possibilities and some very human reactions. The morbid is a natural part of each tale, but it stands as a back drop for exploration of human spirit and potential. These tales are touching, sad, experimental, thrilling, exciting. They are full of love, hope, loss, despair, joy, and humor.

It’s hard to pick out a favorite, because there are so many great stories to read, but here are a few, I especially enjoyed (the titles are all death predictions the machine might put out):

  • “Suicide” presents the story of a man bent on proving the death machine wrong, no matter what it takes.In “Aneurysm,” the machine is used as a rather unusual party game, with unusual and comical results.
  • “Loss of Blood” presents a frightening dystopian future, in which the world is divided along new class lines — the “good” deaths and the “bad” deaths.
  • Following several years of loss and sorrow, a couple seeks out the death machine’s prediction as a beacon of hope in “Miscarriage.”
  • In “Cassandra,” a young woman uses her knowledge of quantum mechanics to try to find a way out of the death machine’s prediction of a terrible disaster.

Many, many more could be mentioned, of course, the entire book in fact. There was not one story that I disliked outright, making this the one of the best anthologies that I’ve ever read. Not only was each story great in it’s own way, but many were also carried with powerful, poetic writing, not to mention the bonus of having each story include an illustration, provided by some great artists. (I’m even more jealous and regretful that I did not write and send in a story when submissions for this market was open.) Definitely worth having on your bookshelf.

[Cross-posted to my livejournal. If you feel inclined, you may comment either here or there.]