Book review: Machine of Death

I just finished reading Machine of Death, a short story collection edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki ! (yes, exclamation mark intentional) about people who know how they’ll die. Death is a tricky subject. No one knows how they’ll die unless they have a terminal disease, and even then there’s some uncertainty. You could get in a car accident, or a natural disaster could strike. But what if you knew how you were going to go? Not necessarily when, but how? Would you live your life differently if you knew you were going to die of cancer or a heart attack? There are some preventive measures you can take, but in the end, something you didn’t expect would sneak up on you. Maybe your family is prone to cancer or heart disease, or maybe the type of cancer you got wasn’t preventable. What if it were something more sinister like a fire or a plane crash? Would you avoid planes? Would you steer clear of fire, only to have your house burn down? Would you spend the rest of your life in a fireproof suit only to have it burn? Knowing how it ends can do funny things to people, and that’s exactly what Machine of Death explores.

The idea began in a Dinosaur Comic, and the book came out in 2010. Word of mouth got the book to number one on Amazon the day it came out, even beating Glenn Beck’s new book. Glenn Beck wasn’t happy. I find this hilarious.

The book itself contains short stories and illustrations from just about every genre, telling what life is like when people know about their deaths. Each title is of a death that is mentioned in the story, and they range from the typical (cancer) to the unexpected (flaming marshmallow). Each story takes place in a different universe with a different year and rules, but a few rules about the machine remain consistent, among them the one that the test must be a blood test. This consistency gives the stories a common string that holds all of them together and lets you imagine that maybe there are a bunch of alternate worlds out there that are using the machine.

The stories themselves are of very high quality. Naturally I liked some stories more than others, as is often the case in any short story collection. Despite all the stories being about the machine, the book didn’t beat any dead horses with its exploration of the machine. Sometimes the machine was a fad; in other tales you faced serious consequences by not being tested. Each story gave a new look at how the machine changed the characters’ worlds, whether they chose to avoid their fate, go ahead and dive into the inevitable, or figure out society’s new rules for acceptable or cool deaths. I laughed, I held back tears, and I stopped after some story to think about the machine’s implications in the world.

Even though the title is Machine of Death, the stories aren’t really about death. Death is a major theme, as are determinism and free will, but what really shines is the hope so many of these characters show as they move on with their lives. Knowing the end isn’t the end of the world unless they chosee to make it so. What matters is how they–and you–get there.

The verdict: Read it. Come on, they’re short stories. You can gobble one or two of them at a time. There’s a free .pdf version if you’re not sure or really can’t afford to spend a few bucks. Be warned. You’ll be thinking about this machine a lot after you’ve finished reading.

In non-review news, the editors are accepting submissions for Volume Two. Yes, this is what I hinted at a few days ago. The submission guidelines are at the site, but here’s the tl;dr version. (Reading the tl;dr version does not excuse you from reading the rest of the submission guidelines. You’ll need to get the submission instructions, for one.)

* Yes, you will get paid if your submission is accepted.
* The suggested story length is 1500-7500 words, but these aren’t hard and fast limits.
* Illustrators, submit your portfolio, not sketches for specific stories.
* Submissions are accepted through 15 July 2011, but it’s obviously in your best interest to submit earlier.

Now read the rest of the instructions and get writing! Or sending portfolios, if that’s your thing.

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