Book #38: Machine of Death (2010)

Machine-of-Death_21editors: Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, David Malki
language: English
length: 470 pages
finished reading on: 9 August

I actually started reading this a few years ago, when it came out and the creators published it for free in pdf form. At some point I lost my place, though, because it was in pdf form. Always one to let small obstacles get in my way, I let it slide and picked it up again recently because it was available on the Humble Ebook Bundle (basically half the things I play, watch or read come from the Humble Bundles these days). And now I could read it on my kindle, which works better for me.

So Machine of Death is a collection of short stories from around 30 different authors all set in a world in which there is a machine that tells you how you’re going to die, but tends to do so in a way that’s ambiguous or outright misleading – the idea being that, for example, you could get “Old Age” and then be murdered by an old guy, or you could get “Drowning”, avoid swimming pools all your life and then still end up drowning. Ryan North came up with the idea in a Dinosaur Comics strip, and it proved to be so popular that people started writing stories for it, or something.

I found this premise quite intriguing in itself, but what made it even better was all the different authors did very different things with it – some wrote a relatively straightforward story in which the main character is perhaps crippled by some fear about their death, and some wrote a philosophical treatise on what it would mean for religion if such a machine existed (is there a god? is the machine god? etc). Indeed, there was such a breadth of material covered in the book that I think it would be difficult to read it and not find any of it interesting.

Not to say that there weren’t some duller stories in there. One thing I did find was that there was a preponderence of so called “Shaggy-Dog” stories, or ones with a non-sequitur or otherwise dissatisfying ending. I think this is a byproduct of short story writing – sometimes it would be more interesting to continue with one story than to go straight into another. For instance, there was a story set in the Himalayas in which a rebel group gets hold of a machine and plans to use it to test their suspected disloyal prisoners – if they are indeed guilty of a crime, their theory goes, the machine should reveal that they’re to be executed by firing squad in some kind of circular logic nightmare. The main character, telling the story in a pub to his friend, even goes into detail about exactly how this plan will go completely wrong, but he ends his story by saying he got out of there, so we never find out what really happens – just as the story feels like it’s actually going somewhere. It wasn’t the only story that did this, but it was one of the most frustrating.

The other main problem I found with the book was that not enough ground rules were laid down for the background of the story. A few sort of seem to be, of course – the stories tend to be set in the future, and the machine is fairly consistently described in size, but as one major example of inconsistency, there were at least two origin stories which happened differently. One other story makes it clear that the machine was invented before 2001 and everybody in the World Trade Center had been tested but nobody got “terrorism” on their prediction card, so they never realised that it would happen – yet this is definitely inconsistent with the other stories in which it always happens in the future or with fictional events.

I guess one thing the machine is consistent on, though, is that the world with this machine will be pretty dystopic – I don’t think there’s really any stories in there which don’t describe an undesirable world. The idea seems to be that it makes everyone confront their mortality, often at a young age before they’re truly ready to do so, and this causes everyone to go insane. I don’t think I myself would be ready for it, if the machine was real, but it’s very easy to get lost in the narrative and just start considering your own mortality through the eyes of the characters. Also, some of the far future stories are pretty explicitly dystopic, such as one in which nations dole out jobs and classify people strictly based on their machine results.

It was pretty fascinating stuff all round. There’s a lot of talent out there on the internet that the creators of this could draw from. I also heard that they’ve made a sequel, another collection of stories about the machine and the way it drives people crazy.

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