Find your voice and get your story straight
Machine of Death – short story collection edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo & David Malki

Machine of Death – short story collection edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo & David Malki

I’m reviewing this book before I’ve finished it.

I’ve read just four out of thirty four “stories about people who know how they will die” but I can’t contain myself.

Machine of Death is a book of revelations.

In all sorts of ways.

Firstly I don’t read short stories or anthologies. Mainly because I instinctively don’t like the idea of them.

(“I’ve never tried Guinness because I don’t like it.”)

Well forty six pages of this book have well and truly taken the blinkers off.

And here’s why. A single high-concept idea that has already (four stories in) proved itself to be a springboard for subtlety, suspense and social commentary.

The machine had been invented a few years ago: a machine that could tell, from just a sample of your blood, how you were going to die. It didn’t give you a date and it didn’t give you specifics. It just spat out a sliver of paper upon which were printed, in careful block letters, the words “DROWNED” or “CANCER” or “OLD AGE” or “CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN”. It let people know how they were going to die. [….] But the machine was frustratingly vague in its predictions: dark , and seemingly delighting in the ambiguities of language. “OLD AGE”, it had already turned out, could mean either dying of natural causes, or being shot by a bedridden man in a botched home invasion. The machine captured that old-world sense of irony in death; you can know how it’s going to happen, but you’ll still be surprised when it does.

The second revelation is that the stories are already not what I expected.

Each story takes its title from a cause of death that has been printed out by the machine. And I was expecting the unexpected. I was expecting a series of clever narrative twists whereby the exact nature of each death, despite the machine’s prediction being declared up front, would be a surprise.

In fact it wasn’t until the fourth story that anyone actually did die.

Part of the reason I decided to review the book before finishing it is that I realised that it is too easy to give too much away about short stories. You need to know enough to be convinced that Machine of Death is worth the price of the book and the shipping from Amazon in the US. But you don’t need me to deny you the repeated delight that I’m currently experiencing.

So this is all I will say.

The first story explores the impact of the machines on teenage social dynamics. You’re not allowed to use the machine before the age of 16. This creates another category of adolescent haves and have-nots, worse than any kind of mobile phone envy. It is really frustrating to be a 15 year old “no-know”.

And the other side of this rite of passage doesn’t necessarily bring any relief from teenage angst. Kids are categorised according to their cause of death predictions. “Burners” are cool. So are “Crashers”. But you really don’t want to be socially scarred by any prediction related to sickness or old age…

The other stories I’ve read explore the impact of the machines on relationships, the life insurance industry and the medical profession.

Machine of Death is like a brilliant advertising campaign idea that has spawned a series of commercials, each of which is brilliant in its own right.

As someone who has spent his entire career dealing with short-form creative content I am asking myself just why I haven’t spent more time with short-form literature.

The third revelation for the purposes of this post is the story about how this book actually came to be.

I bought the book because of this uplifting, community-based back story without really bothering to find out much about its content. I felt that the people behind the book deserved my custom purely on the basis of how they conducted themselves in originating the idea, how they crowd-sourced the content, and how, through doggedness, cunning and collective action, they turned it into an Amazon best-seller.

I’ve blogged this back story before. Read about the uplifting social success story behind Machine of Death here.

Then buy the book.

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