Machine of Death, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !
How would you live if you knew how you would die?
The premise for this collection of short stories was introduced back in 2005, in an installment of Ryan North’s popular Dinosaur Comics. In it, he presents the following premise: there is a machine which, with only a small sample of your blood, can tell you how you will die. But there are no dates, no details, no explanations. Just a few words, and that’s it. The Machine is never wrong, but it is annoyingly vague and has a decidedly un-machinelike love of irony. So you might get OLD AGE and think you were set, right? Not necessarily. You could be murdered by an octogenarian while trying to steal their TV. Or you might get PLANE CRASH and decide never to fly again. Fine, but that won’t stop the single-engine Cessna from plowing into your house one fine spring afternoon. Pulled GUILLOTINE, did you? Hope you know to stay away from heavy metal concerts.
But it doesn’t matter. The Machine, while perversely misleading at times, is never wrong, and like most prophets, its predictions often only make sense after the event has already happened.
With that premise, hundreds of writers across the internet set to work. How would this Machine affect people? How would it affect society or business or politics? Would we become slaves to its predictions, or simply shrug it off and live our lives as we did before, knowing that we were going to die someday anyway?
In “Flaming Marshmallow” by Camille Alexa, we see how the existence of the Machine has begun to shape youth culture. Carolyn is about to turn sixteen, the legal age at which one can be tested. A milestone equivalent with getting one’s driver’s license or being able to vote, kids monitor each other’s fates with scrupulous detail. Your eventual manner of death brings you together with those of similar fates, and new cliques begin to form. Kids who are going to die violent deaths sit together in the lunch room, far away from the ones who get OLD AGE. The kids with DRUG OVERDOSE and fates like it all mill about with each other, and nobody talks to the ones who get SUICIDE. By finding out one’s manner of death, a teenager gets what teenagers always want: a sense of belonging and inclusion. But will Carolyn’s fate bring her closer to her fellow students or just leave her an outsider?
“After Many Years, Stops Breathing, While Asleep, With Smile On Face,” by William Grallo, continues that idea out into the adult world. Ricky is dragged out on the town to a nightclub where people flaunt their deaths. They wear fake toe tags with MURDER or HEART ATTACK on them. Or, if they’re feeling impish, NEVER, or BOREDOM. But while everyone else is mocking their deaths, Ricky is in the odd position of knowing that he’s got a good end to his life. What he doesn’t know is what will happen between now and then, or with whom he will share it.
David Malki ! explores the darker side of society’s reactions in “Cancer.” James is a young man whose father is dying of cancer. It’s what the Machine had predicted, and it was all coming true. Despite the Machine’s infallibility, however, his father was seeking out a cure, a way out from the fate that had been given to him. And he’s not the only one – a new generation of hucksters and faith healers has sprung up, all claiming to be able to defy the predictions of The Machine. It gives James’ father hope, but whether that hope is worth the price or not is something James is unsure of.
“Nothing,” by Pelotard, is a touching tale of a young woman who discovers a family secret that never would have been revealed before the Machine was invented. “Despair,” by K.M. Lawrence, is an examination of how paralyzed people might become by the ambiguity of the predictions, unable to act lest they inadvertently fulfill them. “Improperly Prepared Blowfish” by Gord Sellar is an entertaining moment of secrets and betrayal among a group of yakuza in Japan, and Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw has some fun with the politics of Machine predictions by giving us a politician whose fate is to die from EXHAUSTION FROM HAVING SEX WITH A MINOR.
Some stories are funny, others are touching, but they all center around that most existential of questions: how do we live, knowing that we will die?
Without The Machine, we still know we’re going to die. Every one of us has, somewhere in the back of our mind, that constant reminder that our lives are finite, that there is a limit to the amount of time we can spend on this earth. And, for the most part, we choose to ignore it. After all, if you spend your whole life obsessing over your own death, then you can’t have much of a life, now can you? But add to that fundamental knowledge of finitude the extra awareness of the manner of your death. If you get CAR CRASH, what can you do with that knowledge? You know it’s inevitable, that The Machine is never wrong, but you may still struggle with that fate. You may cut up your driver’s license, move out to Amish country and vow never to be within striking distance of a car again. The entire course of your life will shift drastically, based on the two words printed on that card, but the end result will be the same: CAR CRASH. Knowing that, is it better to act on the knowledge you have gained, or to ignore it?
Even worse, sometimes the very act of finding out your fate leads you right to it. In “Suicide” by David Michael Wharton, characters learn about their deaths only moments before experiencing it. Had they not gone to get tested on The Machine – had they not gone to that machine – would they have avoided their fate? The Machine would say no, but you’d have to ask it first. The best expression of this paradox is contained in the book’s shortest tale, “HIV Infection From Machine of Death Needle” by Brian Quinlan, wherein the very act of discovering your fate causes that fate to happen, whereas you would never have had it if you hadn’t gone looking for it. It’s kind of a mind trip, if you think about it.
What if you get something fairly straightforward, like CANCER, and you decide to, say, jump out of an airplane without a parachute? Will that even be possible, or will random events conspire to keep you safe until your proscribed end? And if you get SUICIDE, the one form of death you have absolute control over, do you fight against it or give in, knowing that nothing you do will change the outcome?
And what could this tell you about the future for everyone? In “Heat Death of the Universe,” by Ramon Perez, teenagers who reach the legal testing age start getting NUCLEAR BOMB as their means of death. The government springs into action, testing, re-testing, and vowing to corral all these kids into one place. But if their deaths are inevitably by NUCLEAR BOMB, what does that mean? It means that whether they’re all in one place or dispersed across the country, that is how they will die. Acting on the information doesn’t change its outcome, only what the manner of that outcome will be.
Conversely, it might be impossible to predict anything from the predictions The Machine gives out. As was pointed out in the same story, the 3,000 victims of 9/11 probably wouldn’t have all had TERRORISM printed on their little cards. They might have had FALLING or FIRE or PLANE CRASH – all true, but none of that would have helped anyone prevent that event. Even something as clear and unambiguous as GLOBAL THERMONUCLEAR WAR creates problems, as Cassandra finds out in the story of the same name by T. J. Radcliffe. If you tell people about this future, will they even believe you? Or will the actions they take to prevent it instead be what causes it to happen? There are no easy answers, at least not without electroshock.
It’s a fascinating group of stories, illustrated by some of the internet’s best artists – Adam Koford, Kevin McShane, Aaron Diaz, Kate Beaton, Christopher Hastings, and too many others to mention. It will do what all really good writing should do – make you think. As seductive as it sounds, knowing the means of your death is information that you really can do without. It is the end to your story, whether you know it or not, but everything until then is still up to you. While you may not have any choice over how you die, you still have plenty of control over how you live. You can live in fear or hope, make plans and take risks and hope for the best.
Just like we do now.
I’ll leave you with a joke from Steven Wright, one that was running through my head as I read the book: My girlfriend asked me if I could know how and when I was going to die, would I want to know? I said, “No, not really.” She said, “Okay, forget it, then.”
Thank you, he’ll be here all week.
“What good is knowing the future if you can’t do anything with the knowledge?”
Dad, from “Friendly Fire” by Douglas J. Lane