Adam's Reviews > Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die

Machine of Death by Ryan North
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Late last year, Glenn Beck of FOX News was prepared to take the #1 spot on Amazon's bestsellers list with yet another ego-feeding poli-historical confabulation that was, quite honestly, destined someday soon for the 49-cent shelf at Goodwill stores all across the country. (If I were writing an honest, respectable review, this is the point where I'd discuss exactly what the book was about rather than hide behind vacuous adjectives. However, at the time I had quite a bit of self-respect left, so I ignored the book. Besides, anything written by cable-news talking heads, no matter their political persuasion, can usually be summed up in the same six words: "My side good, their side bad." There, I just saved us all a lot of time, patience, and money.)

Anyway, to head off what was an assured victory for Beck and his followers, the editors of an otherwise overlookable little anthology pushed for everyone to buy THEIR book on the day Beck's was officially released rather than the pundit's. People rallied to the cause, however symbolic, and on October 26 Beck had to settle for a #2 spot on the list behind a 452-page book filled with nothing but stories about a little machine that, for just under twenty bucks, will tell you how you're going to die.

"Machine of Death" seems a bit imposing at first. Like I said, it's well over 400 pages, and heavy at that. And it's about the exact same thing 34 times over: a machine that tells you how you will die. With this in mind, you're forced to wonder, before you've even begun, how long the editors expect their little gimmick to last. After all, we live in a world that pulls at attention spans left and right--how could the casual reader NOT get bored? And yet, when the spine is broken and the pages flipped, you're drawn into stories so strange and diverse--and yes, even touching and deeply philosophical at times--that each one feels like it hits the reset button on your interests. Sure, the writers had a little fun with some of the potential causes--heat death of the universe, flaming marshmallow, piano--but none of the stories ever felt sarcastic. Every author in this collection took the idea seriously enough that their stories worked. (My least favorite of the stories is the one by Ben Croshaw, and only because the ending ruins what is an otherwise excellent work of fiction.)

In fact, not only does "Machine of Death" turn an otherwise ridiculous subject into an interesting one, it manages to be profound at certain times. The first story in the collection, Camille Alexa's "Flaming Marshmallow," shows us a world in which high school cliques are based around causes of death rather than clothes, athletics, or smarts: those who will one day die tragically and unexpectedly are ironically cool, while those who will live long and reasonably healthy lives are shunned. All the story's protagonist wants to do is be cool, which also means eating at the same lunch table as the boy of her dreams; her desires are pushed back by her father, who lives beyond the pettiness of status and worries only about his beloved daughter's well-being. Rafa Franco's "Piano" gives us a character who finds wealth in his fate rather than despair; once he knows how he WILL die, he's free to take risks and adventures in areas where fate cannot reach him. (As the character notes, pianos do not fall on airline pilots.) Of course, the one question that hangs over the head of every reader, from one story to another, is what we'd do in their situation--get tested or not. Know or not. It's a surprisingly difficult question to answer, and quite a few of the authors in this book feel the same way...a discomfort that only enhances many of the storylines.

Not that this book isn't also darkly funny...because it is. In fact, my favorite story from the entire book ("Fudge" by Kit Yonda) concerns a man looking to prove that the infernal machine can be wrong, no matter what it takes. The story ends, funnily, with a realization that the machine might sometimes be vague, might sometimes be cruel, but it's never wrong. The same can be said of this book: it might be disturbing at times, and other times it might be a little comfortable with itself, but it's never wrong.

NOTE: Each story in the book is accompanied by a full-page work of art, also submitted by contributors, and they complement the stories rather well.
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Reading Progress

February 22, 2012 – Started Reading
February 22, 2012 – Shelved
March 23, 2012 – Finished Reading

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Chris Thanks! You made my day - Kit Yona

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