It's not surprising that Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die is entertaining. Its editors are Dinosaur Comics creator Ryan North, science fiction writer Matthew Bennardo, and cartoonist David Malki ! (the ! is part of his name). It evolved out of one of North's cartoon strips (making it the only anthology ever to have "started its life as an offhand comment made by a bright green Tyrannosaurus Rex" (p. vi)) and it boasts an irresistible premise.
What if there were a machine that could predict, from a single drop of your blood, how you would die? No dates, mind you. No further details. The machine would perform a quick blood test, then spit out a little piece of paper saying: Cancer. Old Age. Telemarketers. It would never be wrong but would be "frustratingly vague in its predictions: dark and seemingly delighting in the ambiguities of language. 'OLD AGE' . . .  could mean either dying of natural causes, or being shot by a bedridden man in a botched home invasion." (p. viii)
This sort of Man vs. Fate dilemma has obsessed us since Sophocles, so it's not shocking to report that Machine of Death hooks you from page one. But where this collection could have been a one joke wonder or merely skated by on its own cleverness, it turns out to be a lot deeper than that. A lot more intelligent. A lot less predictable than its theme of inevitability would have you suppose.
For one thing, Machine of Death's authors have given a tremendous amount of thought to their worldbuilding. The first story, Camille Alexa's "Flaming Marshmallow" realistically imagines the struggles of a high school girl desperate to fit in in a world where the social hierarchy is now determined by your "c-of-d:"
There's a ruckus going on over in the corner. Of course it's the burner kids, cracking each other up, starting a food fight. The burners, the drowners, the crashers, the live-wires, and the fallers—all the violent accidentals—they sit in mingled clumps along the two tables in the corner. That's the coolest corner, and I'm pretty sure I'll get to sit there tomorrow, or at least close. (p.6)
Alexa's set up is not only funny but, in our age of novelty item mania (iPad! iPhone! iDeath?) resonant. It's also refreshingly typical of the stories here. It turns out that that cause of death is the least interesting aspect of the entire premise. It's how such technology would affect your psyche life that's the real killer.
While a number of Machine of Death stories create some impressive futuristic dystopias (of this more later) it's often the characters and situations closer to the here-and-now who fascinate the most. Authors like Tom Francis and John Chernega glue you helplessly to the page, imagining with reasoned psychological precision the mental unraveling of people powerless to change their fate. In Francis's wonderful "Exploded" the narrator (predicted to die of a heart attack) describes how knowing his cause of death "encroached on all our quiet moments: we felt infected. The prediction made it as if our death had already taken root in our bodies, and it was impossible not to visualize it. Memories of health infomercial graphics haunted me, phong-shaded fat congealing in my arteries and constricting my bloodflow." (p. 149) A similar postmodern angst infuses John Chernaga's "Almond," where taut hysteria lurks behind the narrator's snarky narration:
So many people are so fiercely private about their cards. It's really awkward that Beth shows hers off to anyone she meets, and then talks about it. It seems so personal. It's like finding your neighbors' secret sex tapes. You're curious as hell to see them, but as soon as you hit play, you know you shouldn't have. (p. 60)
The Pandora's Box connotation here is deliberate. Both Francis and Chernega have elected to tell their stories from the point of view of someone responsible for creating the machine. Chernega's is particularly satisfying, not only in its effortless use of humor, but in its lucid imagining of a man watching from the center of the storm as his creation snowballs out of control. Over the course of the story we see the machine go from joke novelty item to must-have commodity. Then things get really interesting when it begins to issue tickets citing GOVERNMENT as the testee's cause of death. The ensuing riots and protests as characters react to the narrator’s "freaky pile of circuits and premonitions" (p. 74) feel like they could be happening now, but Chernega avoids political proselytizing by sticking close to the human cost.
The care with which Chernega has constructed his story—each scene revealing a little more about how everyday things like government or one's relationship with their co-workers would change when confronted by Machine of Death technology—is a good example of the attention to detail that makes the anthology work. Julia Wainright's poignant "Killed By Daniel" features a mother who will no longer go outside because her prediction card says she will die by "TREES." Jeff Stautz's science fiction dystopia "Loss of Blood" transports us to an Orwellian hell where the government sorts people into social class based on who has the "safest" kind of death (HEART ATTACK and OLD AGE rocket you to the top of the social strata whereas MURDER earns you a self fulfilling—and state endorsed—execution via air-drop). Few of the societies posited are happy places but thanks to the unique take of each author even those stories which draw on similar themes or motifs bring new insight to their premise. Erin McKean's "Not Waving But Drowning," for example, is also a dystopia where knowing your cause of death has become a bureaucratic process, but it adopts a more subtle approach, depicting the quiet melancholy of a ninth grade girl growing up in the first generation of children who will never have any doubts about their mortality: "I don't know anyone our age who hasn't always known that they're really going to die." (p. 160).
There is an impressive variety of tone and subject here—and an even more impressive knack for the authors to cheat our expectations. A great number of the stories do not feature a death at all but use the premise of the machine to explore how one might live with their newfound knowledge. The young, privileged protagonist in Shaenon K. Garreity"s "Prison Knife Fight" can't get into a good school thanks to his seemingly violent prediction and begins to wonder if, given the stuffy nature of his social sphere, this might not be a good thing. In one of the funniest entries, Jeffrey C. Wright's downtrodden insurance salesman finds unexpected empowerment when he learns he is to be "Torn Apart and Devoured by Lions." And while no "Firing Squad" is present in J Jack Unrau's tale of the same name, the way in which he employs the threat of one in this superb examination of geopolitics and white privilege gone awry gives us all the tension we need.
Of course, most people picking up Machine of Death will do so for the ersatz promise of the original premise. Rest assured, there are ironic deaths aplenty—and plenty of characters who envy Oedipus by the end of their story. But even the stories that follow a character to their demise tend to resist the glib irony of the premise, favoring character-driven dramas, as in Daliso Chapondra's moving "While Trying to Save Another" (whose characters form a self help group as they literally count down the days they have left), or thorough interrogations of the social landscape as in David Malki !'s "Cancer" (whose characters draw personal and political boundaries as they struggle to reconcile the infallible machine with an uprising of New Age healers claiming deliverance from its predictions). Malki ! may be the quintessential Machine of Death author. He follows the elegiac "Cancer" with a second story, "Cocaine and Painkillers," that wrings its gallows humor not from the realization of any spectacular demise, but from the plight of the living characters: a collection of stressed-out marketing personnel unsure what the strange new gimmick they're supposed to be pimping on their version of the Home Shopping Network is even meant to do. "I just can't wrap my head around this stupid thing! All Jack can say is he thinks it's a drug test." (p. 305)
As a writer, Malki ! is a treat. As editors, Malki !, North, and Bennardo should be commended. If it's cheap, sadistic thrills you crave you’d do better to let Machine of Death alone and catch up on your Jersey Shore—but if you'd like to think as well as be mightily entertained, you're in the right place. Just be careful: when I opened my copy of Machine of Death a little piece of paper fell out of it. I'm now wondering, as anyone ought to approaching this brilliant collection of stories, if the single, ominous word printed thereon is cause for giggles or alarm.
Hannah Strom-Martin lives and writes in California.