Five years in the making, Machine of Death is an anthology of short stories all emerging from a single premise: what if a machine could predict with perfect accuracy, and also perfect ambiguity, how you were going to die? You provide a blood sample and the machine spits out a little index card that says “CANCER” or “TORN APART AND DEVOURED BY LIONS” or “ALMOND” (whatever that’s supposed to mean). With the existence of such an invention, the world would have to change necessarily. These well-written, supremely imaginative stories take the challenge on, running the gamut from hilarious to harrowing, all in the tradition of the greatest speculative fiction.
Publishing only 30 stories from the hundreds of submissions received, the anthology features a diverse range of subjects. Some focus on changes society as a whole would undergo with the new technology. Others are more personal tales of individuals who learn (or choose not to learn) how they’re going to die. But here’s something no one could have predicted: this self-published book debuted at Amazon’s top spot, beating out Glenn Beck’s new book. Many of the authors featured are well-known online, as are many of the artists whose illustrations accompany each story. Designed by Ryan Torres, the book is physically beautiful, however, it’s also available in multiple electronic formats and through an ongoing series of podcasts.
One criticism is that 30 stories may be a few too many. The ones toward the end feel tired and expositional. Another is that the stories aren’t mutually consistent. Most get along together quite well, seemingly taking place in the same world, albeit different countries and time periods; others blatantly contradict each other. Nobody promised the stories would occupy a shared world, just share a basic conceit, but still it distracts somewhat from the unity of the work. But that’s a very minor complaint. Overall, Machine of Death is fascinating and entertaining: it will make you laugh and think about death. This is healthy if you don’t let it take over your life – the unfortunate fate of so many characters within these pages. (Richard Rosenbaum)
Edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo & David Malki, 464 pgs, Bearstache Books, bearstache.com, $17.95