It took me a while (four months, to be exact), but I’m finally ready to write about the next round of books! And for this round, we’re going to the not-so-distant future.
What I love about this particular trio of books — aside from having a clear theme — is that they reminded me of something I really love about reading: the escapism it affords. Yep, real life can suck sometimes. It can suck so hard, you’ll find yourself looking for (healthy) breaks and distractions more often. Getting back to reading didn’t just give me those breaks and most of the oft-mentioned benefits; it also reignited my imagination by taking me to different versions of the future and presenting a trove of scenarios, possible and impossible.
These three books also have other things in common: the stories focus on tech developments meant to improve certain things, and all deal with personal identity in myriad ways. But they still have enough elements similar to the present time that they don’t become overwhelming, or make you feel as if you’re exploring completely different worlds.
Some would say that part of the thrill in being alive is not knowing how and when you’ll die. (No, don’t say YOLO. Oh, you said it. Damn you.)
Well then. What if you have a machine that will accurately tell you how you die, but not how you’ll get there? That’s the premise of Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die, published in 2010. The idea came from a 2005 Dinosaur Comics panel by Ryan North, and eventually turned into a compilation of 34 crowdsourced stories.
Also, all story writers whose stories were included in the book were appropriately compensated for their effort — another huge plus for me.
Anyway. Here’s the basic idea. You go to the nearest Machine, and put your finger into a slot. A needle pricks and draws blood from that finger, and the drawn blood is analyzed by the Machine. The verdict’s printed out on a white card and discharged like any other object in a vending machine, and off you go to celebrate or grieve or panic or cry or whatever.
The first thing you’ll notice is the variety of the deaths printed on those cards. The CODs can be relatively vanilla, or thoroughly absurd and hilarious. Death is never cut and dried, you know. We’d all love to die of old age, lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by loved ones, without any regrets, and a thorough and iron-clad Last Will and Testament, but in reality, few will have this privilege.
I think the different causes of death makes the whole compilation an interesting read. It gives the writers plenty of room to play with their characters and their fates, and mess with your mind as well. It has that whole Final Destination kind of vibe going on: it’s fun being with the characters on that fuzzy and crazy ride to the end. Obviously, I do love me some morbid literature.
The stories also go beyond the actual Machine of Death and the cards. They focus on the folks who made that contraption, how the Machine works and was marketed, and the policies enacted in response — one story stated that children of a certain age can be allowed to use the Machine, while some go for the in utero strategy. The tales also delve into the ways people react to the future deaths, how all types of relationships are affected by each card, how people often try to sidestep or cheat their fates, and how many will avoid the most obvious scenarios — only to be done in by completely unexpected factors and scenarios.
The human aspect is what’s most interesting to me, although the Machine itself comes at a very close second. Most characters are afraid and terrorized by the Machine and the cards they were literally dealt, and the 34 stories highlight how downright ugly humanity can be and how stupidly and dangerously we act as a whole. We’re all OK individually, but as a species… we’re definitely fucked.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There are good times within this alternate universe. The writers made sure to put a lot of witty one-liners and jokes in their stories, so you’ll still laugh or smile even if the whole topic can sometimes get heavy, dragging, and a tad emo-ish. One concept can only be pushed so far, you know.
Some stories look like they can also be connected to each other, and share characters and plots. It’s fun to imagine how one mini-world will react to another and vice versa.
Out of those 34 stories, I wound up liking these:
- HIV Infection from Machine of Death Needle
- Love Ad Nauseum
- Cocaine and Painkillers
- Loss of Blood
Machine of Death now has a sequel (This is How You Die), podcasts where individual chapters are read by the authors or voice actors, and even a card game. Hmmm. That last product will spice up drinking sessions and family reunions. 😛
Machine of Death, Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo and David Malki ! (editors)
Download: PDF (free)
Buy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | TopatoCo | Book Depository | Gumroad | Apple iBooks
(Next: “Copies of Copies“: Seroks: Iteration 1 by David Hontiveros and Alan Navarra)