Book Review: 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!

Published October 13, 2010

Bearstache Books

464 pp.

ISBN 0-982-16712-1

Reviewed April 23, 2011

It’s impossible to look at “Machine of Death” and not see it as anything but unequivocal victory for the Internet. Not only was it based on an idea from a widely popular webcomic and assembled by a wide pool of bloggers, webcomic writers and other web-centric contributors, but it was also the subject of a widely blogged and tweeted campaign to buy the book on the release date and shoot it to the top of Amazon charts. And not only did it succeed in that goal, but it earned a vitriolic response from Glenn Beck that only managed to garner it more positive exposure and healthy sales past the release date.

That’s a fantastic success story for marketing in the age of Twitter, but even if they’d cut all that organizing out it wouldn’t change the fact that “Machine of Death” is a wonderfully solid collection of short fiction. In soliciting the best stories from the Internet talent pool, the editors of “Machine of Death” – Ryan North, M. Bennardo and David Malki! – have inspired a wide range of mediations on what’s really important when your ultimate faith is hanging over your head, mining psychological trauma for stories that oscillate almost seamlessly between the funny and the tragic.

Each of the stories is focused on the same broad concept: the existence of a machine that can take a blood sample and infallibly predict how that person is going to die. However, the prediction is laid out in the vaguest of terms, only one word or short phrase such as “cancer” or “friendly fire” or “while trying to save another.” Each prediction is purposely vague – it doesn’t say, for example, whether the subject will commit suicide or die as a result of someone else’s suicide – but it comes true in a fashion that leaves no doubt as to the efficacy of the machine.

Obviously, many of the stories are internally focused, dealing with the specific reactions to the knowledge. In some stories, the subjects will be rendered utterly paralyzed by the choice, trying to avoid any and all incarnations of what could kill them and yet still fall prey. Still others will dive into their fates – “fire” leads to firefighters, “robbery” leads to police officers – and others will embrace it joyfully to the point of psychosis (“Torn Apart and Devoured by Lions,” Jeffrey C. Wells). There’s also stories about those who built the machine, such as John Chernega’s “Almond” or Tom Francis’ “Exploded,” which get into the heads of those who build or maintain the machine, and do a masterful job in showing how being so closely tied with an inanimate doomsayer would break you down psychologically.

But even more than the individual impact, the best interpretations of “Machine of Death” come up when it expands to consider just what would happen to a society where such machines are commonplace – even moreso since no two stories share the same interpretation. Would it be like Camille Alexander’s “Flaming Marshmallow,” where it’s mandatory for everyone to have their blood tested in high school and the results completely replace the high school cliques of jocks and nerds with crashers and bullets? Or could it be like Douglas J. Lane’s “Friendly Fire,” where a new breed of domestic terrorists devote their lives to its destruction, haunted by what the knowledge of death did to their loved ones? Much like death itself, the possibilities are endless, and the stories get better the more they expand their scope.

The sheer breadth of ideas means that there’s stories for every taste, but here’s some particular favorites of mine: Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw (of “Mogworld”)‘s “Exhaustion While Having Sex With a Minor,” which offers some excellent irony and political satire; M. Bennardo’s “Starvation,” which uses the concept as a springboard for a haunting wartime tale of isolation; and Erin McKean’s “Not Waving But Drowning” which mixes the adolescent, societal and ironic sides of the concept in a very interesting way. Bonus points for creative formatting go to “Love Ad Nauseam” from Sherri Jacobsen and “HIV Infection from Machine of Death Needle” from Brian Quinlan, the latter of which is so wonderfully succinct Hemingway would nod approvingly.

The timeline to enrage Glenn Beck by purchasing it might be long past, but that only takes away one of the many reasons why “Machine of Death” is worth reading. It’s alternatively dark and funny, always creative and varied enough that at least one of the stories will be worth your attention. Who’d’ve thought an offhand comment by a green tyrannosaurus could yield this much depth?

Extra Credit:

  • If you want to take a look at the sample stories, the publishers are offering it through Creative Commons on their website. Several stories are also available as free podcasts.
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One Response to Book Review: Machine of Death

  1. […] is coming back into circulation after a two-month hiatus. My reviews of the short story collection “Machine of Death” and Sarah Vowell’s “Unfamiliar Fishes” just popped up last month, and more […]

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