I’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.
The 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.