Book Review: Machine of Death

Machine of Death CoverI’m starting to review books and other materials for the site. No awards just yet, but consider reviews on this site to be positive recommendations. If you would like me to consider something, send me an email or comment. If you are a publisher, send me a review copy 🙂

Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories about People Who Know How They Will Die
Edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, & David Malki !
Bearstache Books, 2010

This book review is also a preview for an imminent Major Fun Game Award. Many books get made into games. The mark of a good game is one that can be played and enjoyed without knowing anything about the source material. That is true for Machine of Death. I loved the collection of stories and found that my experience with the book enhanced my enjoyment of the game; but I was the only one of our Major Fun play-testers who had even heard of the book. [Spoiler alert: the game is Major Fun.]

Thematic anthologies like Machine of Death are probably the literary equivalent of a knitting circle. This is not a pejorative. I’m using knitting circle to substitute for any hobby, or club, or niche activity. Short story anthologies that focus on a theme or genre appeal to those people who are already going to be drawn to that specific theme. I have a fondness for post-apocalyptic speculative fiction so it should come as no surprise that I have a an anthology on my bookshelf called Brave New Worlds that is a chronological collection of dystopian fictions. Anthologies generally preach to the choir or serve as a teaching instrument for those of us with an academic disease.

Machine of Death breaks out of some of these constraints. It’s not purely a work of genre fiction like sci-fi, fantasy, or horror. It is also not a narrowly defined thematic category like “coming home” or “abuse” or “race relations.” I suppose the broad category could be “death” but that doesn’t really do the stories justice. Machine of Death became the #1 seller on Amazon in 2010 not because there is some popular “death fiction” subgenre (although I bet morbid curiosity certainly helped) but rather because there is a deep curiosity about how people choose to live.

Machine of Death ComicThe core concept comes from a comic strip written and drawn by Ryan North (one of the editors). In the strip, a chatty T-Rex describes a machine that can predict how you are going to die. The machine is 100% accurate but it does not tell you where or when. It reports the how of your death with (usually) just a few words: “car wreck” or “love” or “hydra-colonic malfunction.”

By this time you’ve read the strip I’ve provided so you get the picture. Ryan and fellow writers Matthew Bennardo and David Malki ! solicited stories based on the idea of the machine and the rest is history.

What makes the collection more than just a one note joke or (worse) a collection of snuff-stories, is the focus on the knowledge of death more than the actual deaths. A machine such as this would shake the world to its core but in ways that would be subtle—more like a very low musical note rather than an earthquake. Once a machine like this exists there would always be a tension between knowing and not knowing. And given the machine’s rather ironic sense of humor, the word “knowing” should be always be set in quotation marks. The stories do a fantastic job of exploring the angles and intricate folds of this “knowledge.” They are often funny and dark. Sometimes oblique. Sometimes poignant. But always thoughtful.

In many ways the collection reminds me of all the best conversations I had in college and graduate school. Those late nights and lazy weekends when we would try to look into the future or love or death or evil. The Machine of Death is about death and dying but only if you focus on the one thing that all of us already know is going to happen. In the meantime, we have to live and the best stories in the collection are the ones that reveal something about our living world—something taken for granted until we get a glimpse of the end.

Will Bain
Major Fun


Book Review: Play at Work

PlayAtWorkI’m starting to review books and other materials for the site. No awards just yet, but consider reviews on this site to be positive recommendations. If you would like me to consider something, send me an email or comment. If you are a publisher, send me a review copy 🙂

Play at Work
Adam Penenberg
Portfolio / Penguin, 2013

The thing I find most compelling about Adam Penenberg’s Play at Work are the times when the anecdotes and analysis open up to me the ways electronic media and social networks have so fundamentally changed our society. There have always been social networks and there have been numerous advances in communication that altered the social fabric. What strikes me at several points in Penenberg’s book is the degree to which the confluence of these things (social networks and electronic media) have created institutions that are indistinct from virtual (or simulated) institutions.

Take Chapter Six where Penenberg explores the search for special proteins that could be used to fight HIV. The problem that scientists face (and I am grossly oversimplifying here) is that finding the “right protein” involves finding the right shape of protein. Proteins are very long molecules that derive their useful (or harmful) properties from the way they twist and turn and fold. Figuring out the component parts of the protein is not the difficult part. Figuring out how to combine those parts so the protein folds in just the right way is difficult. So difficult in fact that many problems have been impossible to crack even with some of the most advanced super-computers.

FolditEnter Foldit, a puzzle game that encourages users to form social networks while they play with protein molecules. The game taps into our all too human desires to solve problems, compete, and share. It also provides incredibly difficult puzzles that correspond to protein conundrums in real life. Players learn the basics of folding proteins by playing low level puzzles. As they get better, the puzzles get harder but they start to learn techniques from other players. They form teams. They earn experience and rewards in the form of badges, points, and other forms of recognition. And in 2011, a team of Foldit players cracked a protein that was needed to attack an AIDS related virus in Rhesus monkeys.

Thousands of people playing with simulated proteins in an electronic social network, contributed to a massive breakthrough in bio-chemistry. The virtual realm in which we can play, in which we can drop in and out of our own volition, created the information we needed to change our world. The ability of people to voluntarily play with an idea, to compete against others for only the sense of accomplishment (no monetary gain), and the ability for these people to collaborate (usually via electronic means) were the keys to success.

As Penenberg demonstrates with most of his chapters, these three components are what are key to creating a playful, game-inspired environment. This approach to problem solving, education, and growth is not a panacea, but rather another way of looking at how our hierarchical, standardized institutions might be able to tackle problems that have appeared intractable.

Penenberg is an enthusiastic and engaging writer. The chapters are loosely grouped around considerations of game design, the serious side of play, and how game design has influenced the corporate world, but there is a lot of overlap. The chapters are also episodic so you can pick up and leave the book at intervals or skip around without losing any sense of his central themes.

For those of us who already believe that playfulness and good game design have something profound to offer society (beyond “mere” entertainment) then Penenberg is preaching to the choir. But there are so many fascinating stories that the book is hard to put down. A great read into the complexities and mechanics of play and games.

Will Bain
Major Fun

Book Review: The Book of Odds

The Book of OddsI’m starting to review books and other materials for the site. No awards just yet, but consider reviews on this site to be positive recommendations. If you would like me to consider something, send me an email or comment. If you are a publisher, send me a review copy ♥

The Book of Odds
Amram Shapiro, Louise Firth Campbell, & Rosalind Wright
Harper Collins, 2014

Convincing people to read a book full of columns and tables and lists of numbers is not an easy sell. Nothing says “gripping narrative” like actuarial tables. And yet, The Book of Odds is one of those books that I will pick up any time I have a few moments.

As its name proclaims, The Book of Odds contains thousands of events that could befall the reader and the odds that such events will occur. Want to know the odds of meeting you’re a love interest through a blind date? Want to know the odds of going on a cruise for your honeymoon? Want to know the odds that a high school senior will binge drink? How about the odds that you will die from heart disease? (Answers provided at bottom of this post)

The authors have been compiling data from many sources since 2006 and these sources are cited with each collection of information. Much of the information comes from the U.S. census and other government or academic studies; however, polls and research by more popular/commercial sources such as Cosmo, ABC News, and also appear.

The book design is very sparse: solid colors, geometric graphics, and a smattering of silhouette watermarks. Each page contains anywhere from two to five tables and columns filled with numbers along with short analytical sidebars that connect common trends. The design isn’t crowded but it is busy.

So what’s the attraction?

Maybe it’s the gamer in me.

Probability is at the heart of most games. Even those games like chess that do not use random events require players to understand the possible outcomes of any particular move. I would hazard a guess that the best games are the ones in which events are predictable but not certain. Players take action on the predictions they make and they take actions that will increase the accuracy of their predictions, but there must always be some degree of uncertainty. Great game design balances the rational with the uncertain.

But I think this book taps into something more profound than our ability to create simulations and diversions. Certainly we are a curious species—an information species. We gossip. We share bits of trivia, and in that regard, The Book of Odds is a like the Tree of Knowledge’s weedier cousin: the shrub of data.

Lightning_hits_treeIt helps that almost all the odds are expressed in terms of “1 in something.” In this fashion all the events can be compared. Your chances of being hit by lightning can be matched against your chance of being killed by the flu (1 in 1,101,000 vs. 1 in 733,871) and these matched against your chance that your baby will actually be one of a set of triplets (1 in 723). We like to compare ourselves to others. We want to see where we stand. The Book of Odds is a great way to learn about the statistical outliers like lightning strikes, shark attacks, and Ebola outbreaks, but I think it is really at its most engaging when you recognize yourself in the numbers.

And the authors aren’t above a little prurient titillation to keep you moving through the chapters. Chapter One is titled “Sex” while the final chapter is “Accidents and Death.” The intervening chapters move chronologically (more or less) through a typical life cycle addressing dating, marriage, birth, childhood, school, health, psychology, and beliefs. Everything is here for thousands of sound bites for our 24 hour “news” culture: sex, drugs, and all the dangers and threats that will keep the audience coming back after the commercial break.

Your friends might give you grief about having a book like this on your coffee table, but leave them alone for a few minutes with it and chances are they will be flipping through the pages and asking you, “Hey can you guess the chances of…”

Will Bain
Major Fun

ANSWERS for paragraph 2 (in order): 1 in 34.1 / 1 in 10 / 1 in 3.2 / 1 in 427

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