Book Review: Machine of Death

April 23, 2011

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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Book Review: Mogworld

November 3, 2010

Mogworld

By Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw

Published September 14, 2010

Dark Horse Books

350 pp.

ISBN 1-595-82529-0

Reviewed November 3, 2010

Anyone taking a first glance at “Mogworld” could be forgiven for not knowing exactly how to take it. First, it springs from the mind of Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, best known as the creator of the video series Zero Punctuation, where the emphasis is less on dialogue and narrative flow and more on seeing how many obscene game-related jokes can be packed into five minutes. Secondly, it’s published by Dark Horse Books, a company whose stables are populated by legendary comic series like “Hellboy” and “Sin City” but are virtually devoid of non-graphic novels. It seems like an outlier within an outlier, and even with the impressive resumes on each side it remains uncharted territory for both.

But much as ZP’s rapid-fire simply animated style is only the shell for some truly well-considered gaming criticism, and Dark Horse’s comic book image might obscure the brilliance of its narratives, “Mogworld’s” murky origin hides what it really is – a remarkably clever novel that not only digs at the tropes of fantasy gaming but also tells a nuanced tale of unwilling heroism. It’s a book incredibly strong in both gaming humor and British humor, and while it might not win many audiences outside of that realm it’s guaranteed to please those within it.

“Mogworld” centers on the unwanted unlife of Jim, a sorcery student killed in battle and wrenched back to life by a necromancer bent on world domination. Unable to return to death’s embrace no matter how many times he throws himself off a tower, and put out of his rat-pit tending job by a series of cataclysmic events, he finds himself drawn to the mystery of angelic white “Deleters” that are reducing entire sections of the world to nothingness. As he follows them in the desperate hope of being deleted himself, he sees that not only does the rest of the world share his immortality but that the world’s very structure seems to be unraveling – almost as if someone forgot to finish it.

And it’s those cracks in the world that provide the book’s first layer of humor. “Mogworld’s” setting subscribes to the same sense of humor as fantasy webcomics such as Rob Balder’s “Erfworld” and Rich Burlew’s “Order of the Stick,” in that the world’s natural laws would better fit into a Dungeons and Dragons manual. The spirits of the dead have to float their way to temples to come back to life, and become understandably grouchy as they wait their turn. Resident adventurers approach anyone who’s standing still and demand quests, but are more concerned with “points” awarded than the actual gold.

These are standard tropes to anyone who’s played a roleplaying game, but when presented through Jim’s disbelieving eyes they take on an added dimension of absurd hilarity. Jim’s take on these events will instantly be familiar to ZP viewers or readers of “Extra Punctuation” columns, as “Mogworld” is written in the same first-person style – and even contains a few references to its shorter predecessors. The book retains Croshaw’s distinctive caustic attitudes, but it quickly dispels any notion that he can only work in a shorter medium. The narration’s fast-paced tone means that it doesn’t get bogged down in heavy levels of backstory, and his dismissive attitudes against romance and authority figures add a definite edge to the standard fantasy setting. The colorful analogies might fly a bit too freely for some – without the visual aids of a ZP video they border on repetitive – but they’re not detrimental to the narrative and never lack for inventiveness, such as “a noise like the enthusiastic mating of giant stone golems” or a comparison between zombie flesh and apple turnovers.

It also helps that as the story progresses, the analogies take a backseat to character interactions, and it’s here that Croshaw really surprises. Jim’s world-weary tones form the foundation of the conversations, but the cast of characters – ranging from a bubbly female zombie to a shifty rogue marrying a comatose adventurer to a psychopath killing himself out of sheer boredom – are all well-realized and bounce off each other in an unforced manner. The dialogue is sharply written, owing quite a bit to the dry British wit of Douglas Adams and P.G. Wodehouse but made its own entity by its very dark sense of humor. None of these characters are heroes or even vaguely heroic – they’re all just dealing with the world the best way they know how, and that makes them more convincing as characters.

And the narrative strength makes for the most satisfying aspect of “Mogworld.” Croshaw has long railed against the poor storytelling endemic to the video game industry, and the book’s character and setting arcs prove he’s taken their lessons of what not to do to heart. When the boundaries between Jim’s world eventually break and the truth begins to enter into his world, the transition feels far more organic than expected from such a drastic shift. There are a series of climaxes in the later chapters, each one more gripping than the last, and Jim’s observations in the final chapter form a satisfying and legitimately touching conclusion to the story.

It’s uncommon for any first novel to have such a well-conceived storyline – even moreso when the creator’s most famous achievement averages a dick joke a minute – but “Mogworld” manages to take Croshaw’s writing to a new level while maintaining the wit and spirit that makes Zero Punctuation such a success. The majority of its humor may be lost on anyone without at least passing familiarity with that series or gaming culture, but it will hook fans of those elements within the first three chapters and its story and language are likely strong enough to net other readers. It’s entertaining, it’s immersive and all the other words games so desperately try to earn from Croshaw’s reviews – a book that proves he has the talent to back up what he says about storytelling.

Extra Credit: