FULL TITLE: Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die
PUBLISHER: Bearstache Books, 2010
PAGE COUNT: Including the Contributors page, Introduction, and Preface, there are 452 pages, of which I read 443.
READING TIME: 3.5 weeks
If there were a machine that could take a sample of your blood, analyze it, and then tell you how you’re going to die in just a few words on a slip of paper, would you use the machine? But wait: you should know that the machine’s frustratingly vague, no one’s quite sure how it works, and it’s predictions can be, well, ironic.
This is the premise for a collection of short stories edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki. It was a concept first posed by the main character T-Rex in North’s wildly popular “Dinosaur Comics,” before a call for submissions invited writers to contemplate how the existence of such a machine would impact our world.
The 30 stories in the collection each approach the topic differently, but they all grapple with the danger of knowing too much information about the future. It’s an age-old concept, in fact: knowing how we’re going to die, knowing anything about how the future is meant to unfold. It’s problematic and dangerous, of course, as we can only ever have an incomplete picture of the future. We can only ever have an incomplete picture of our present.
In his writings about memory and time travel, science historian James Gleick says that if “the absolute world” is a “four-dimensional continuum, then all we perceive at any instant is a slice of the whole. Our sense of time: an illusion. Nothing passes; nothing changes. The universe–the real universe, hidden from our blinkered sight–comprises the totality of these timeless, eternal world lines.” Since the machine only gives people the vaguest idea of how they will die, I feel this further emphasizes the fact that we really can’t know. Not absolutely or completely, anyway. Or, rather, not until death is upon us.
You can avoid eating peanuts because your slip said PEANUT, only to be run over by a peanut delivery truck or crushed by a Mr. Peanut billboard. See–PEANUT isn’t an absolute.
All the stories are creative and well-written, but my favorites are “Flaming Marshmallow” by Camille Alexa and “HIV Infection from Machine of Death Needle” by Brian Quinlan. The latter is great because the full story is,
“Well,” I thought, “that sucks.”
And “Flaming Marshmallow” has the makings of a clever young adult dystopian-high school tale. Carolyn has just turned 16, the legal age for getting a c-of-d (cause of death) reading when accompanied by a parent or guardian. Prior to her 16th birthday, she was a no-know forced to eat lunch with other no-knows and contemplate what it would be like to call one of the coolest groups–crashers, burners, drowners, fallers–her own. In high school, your c-of-d is your social status, your social currency.
What’s worse than being a no-know? Having an uncool c-of-d–sickness or old age.