May 05, 11
Read from April 30 to May 05, 2011
The Machine of Death has a simple concept with big, complex ramifications. You put a small sample of blood in the machine and it tells you how you will die. Not when, not in detail, just how. It is usually vague and frequently ironic.
The authors who contributed to this collection took the premise presented in one of Ryan North's Dinosaur Comics and ran with it. The results are fantastic. Like any collection of short stories some are better than others. And, perhaps because a good number of the authors are young and just starting out in their careers, some of the stories are not as well polished as they could be. But they make up for it in imagination.
Free will is a big theme in this collection, appearing most interestingly in "While Trying to Save Another." Even with the addition of an exact date to the death predictions, the outcome is inevitable. Also appearing more than once are the scientists who created the device, though I thought "Almond" and its framing device of the machine's testing log to be the most effective. "Murder and Suicide, Respectively" also uses the concept to pose a fascinating thought experiment. The way the machine tests relationships is another big theme, which I thought was handled really interestingly in both "Starvation" and "Killed by Daniel."
It would be easy to think this could be a depressing collection, and some of the stories are. "Despair" deals with the free will issue with deft characterization, and in David Malki's "Cancer" it seems like the machine's influence hardly matters at all to the inevitable conclusion. However, there were quite a few stories that were much more uplifting than you would expect. "Not Waving But Drowning" is about a young girl who receives her prediction for the first time and, in spite of how vague it is and how sad it sounds, is surprisingly pleased. "Prison Knife Fight" was a hilarious look at parent-child relationships, with things working out surprisingly well from the child's perspective.
As with any collection, there will be some stories that will interest some readers more than others. And while there were some I didn't care for much, there weren't any in the book that I can say I out and out disliked. There are so many places to go with this concept it's hard not to get excited over a new set of possibilities each time you turn the page. I highly recommend the book, and not just to sci-fi fans.