May 27, 2014

[Books] Machine of Death

There's a bit of a funny story about how I came to have a copy of this book. I had first learned about this book because my partner Tobie had supported the Kickstarter project for the game based on the book - Machine of Death: The Game of Creative Assassination. We've been playing the game every now and then during our game nights and that got me looking into the book. But just as I was about to buy the book, I realized that I had already acquired a copy - ironically through another Kickstarter project by one of the editors of the book.I just hadn't read it yet. And after a bit more digging, he realized that he had a copy of the book as well. Life's funny that way.

So here we are with my review for Machine of Death - the book. And I have to admit, I wasn't expecting all that much at first from this crowdsourced collection of short stories about a world where your cause of death may be known. But instead, I was pretty much hooked on the darn thing and I tried to read as much of it as I could whenever I had free time. And a lot of these stories required a fair amount of thinking afterward, thus sprinting through the entire collection just isn't quite ideal.

As humorous as the core premise of the book is, the resulting stories are far more interesting and downright thought-provoking.

Synopsis: Machine of Death is a collection of short stories edited  by Ryan North (Dinosaur Comics), Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki (Wondermark). The core premise of the book began as one of North's webcomic strips that eventually led to the trio soliciting stories from the internet at large given the titular premise.

The Machine of Death is a fictional device that is somehow able to extrapolate how a person is going to die. It will not explain when this is going to happen nor will it go into detail as to how the death will happen. Instead it spits out a small card with a few words that describe the death - anything as basic as CANCER or perhaps even OLD AGE. But the twist is that the predictions can be interpreted in any number of ways. For a person whose prediction says BUS, does this mean he'll be hit by a bus? Will he die as a passenger on a bus? Or will he trip on a toy bus and fall down the stairs? The machine is deliberately vague, but it's also never, ever wrong.

The collection features 34 stories by a wide variety of authors that all try to tackle the question of how life would change if people knew how they were going to die. The stories range from the seemingly silly like a high school girl trying to figure out what social clique she might fit in based on her death prediction to more epic stories that try to tackle the very nature of the machine itself. Are our lives so predetermined that a machine can figure out how we'll meet our eventual demise or does the act of reading that prediction card trap us in some self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts?

And the stories that were selected for this collection are pretty amazing in different ways. Things start out fairly light and often humorous, but then things start to push the limits and raise bigger and bigger questions, the sort of questions we explore with the best science fiction stories. If cause of death is potentially known, how are doctors supposed to treat patients who appear to be doomed to die once their condition is assessed in the ER? Would people use their predictions as a reason to live life to the fullest or will they become frozen in fear of dying?  The questions go on and on.

It's almost inevitable that the stories eventually touch on a lot of topics related to free will, predetermined fate and perhaps even how much of our "modern" society is patterned after not knowing something like our cause of death. But best of it, the stores focus on the human perspective, how the individual tries to cope with the grim reality of pretty much living with death as a companion the moment you get yourself tested by that machine.

Machine of Death is a rich reading experience that is more than worth whatever you end up paying for it given it was also released under a Creative Commons license. This is over 450 pages of well thought out science fiction and speculative writing that will make you think about a lot more than how you're going to die. And this is why I'm confident enough to give this collection a full 5 comically ironic deaths predicted by the Machine out of a possible 5.

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