Category Archives: existentialism

Books about or on the theme of existentialism.

Review 117: I Will Fear No Evil

I Will Fear No Evil by Robert Heinlein

One of the things I enjoy about Heinlein is that he likes to play with Big Ideas. While he did dip into the well of action and adventure, especially for his juvenile stories, he treated his readers like they were only slightly intellectually inferior to him, and so explored concepts that required a lot of heavy thinking. The need for war, the inevitability of messiahs, revolution, life, death, immortality – he’s not afraid to look at some of the greatest philosophical topics that reside in the human heart, and this book is no exception.

Johann Sebastian Bach Smith is a very old, very sick, very rich man. He built himself up from nothing and rose to financial prominence in what is a little more than a regular human lifetime. Smith had it all – a rich and exciting life, complete financial security, good friends and good memories in a world that had, frankly, gone to hell. He had very nearly everything a person would want to have.

Photo by openDemocracy

What he didn’t have was time. He lived in daily pain, kept alive by only two things: an ever-increasing number of machines and a plan to release himself from the geriatric horror his life had become. He knew that this plan would probably fail. He knew that he was facing death no matter what happened. He knew that it was crazy, and not necessarily crazy enough to work. But it was all that stood between him and suicide.

That plan was, in theory, very simple: transplant his healthy brain into the body of a healthy young person. By doing so, he would gain a whole extra lifetime to enjoy the fruits of his first lifetime’s labor. Not being a monster, he was prepared to do this in a legal and ethical fashion. With his legal, medical, and judicial contacts, he made arrangements with a medical advocacy group to get the body of a healthy young person who died due to some massive brain trauma. And – and this is important – who consented to having their body used for medical experimentation. Everything would be above-board, legally sound and ethically certain. All Smith had to do was stay alive until a body became available.

Now just put the two of them together... IF YOU DARE!

When it did, however, he was in for a double surprise. Not only was the healthy, youthful body that of a female, it was that of his healthy, youthful, beautiful secretary, Eunice Branca. Eunice had been murdered, but her body was in excellent condition. She had the right blood type, and had consented to have her body used for Smith’s experiment. The one doctor in the world who could perform the surgery was brought in to perform it, and against all odds, it worked. Johann Sebastian Bach Smith was reborn as Joan Eunice Smith, and her new life began.

But she was not alone.

By some means, Eunice’s mind survived to live with Joan, and tutor her in all the ways of being a woman. Joan dove happily into her new life, exploring her new femininity and sexuality as best she could.

In that sense, this whole book is an exploration of sexual identity. Here we have a man who is now a woman, even though that was never his intention. He soon finds himself thinking like a woman, though, bringing up the question of whether gender is determined by a person’s mind, or by the body it inhabits. If you put a male mind into a female body, with the vastly different hormones and sensory inputs, will that male mind start to act like a female? And even if it does, should it?

Smith makes a decision to, with Eunice’s help, be the best woman he can be, mostly because he feels that is what is expected of him. After a lifetime of conforming to male societal roles, Smith wholeheartedly embraces the female ones, up to and including seducing his best friend of many decades. Gender identity in this book is a tangled mess of biology and intention, and it looks at being female from a distinctly male point of view.

It was a different time....

Which brings me to my first problem with this book: the casual misogyny. I know it’s a pretty loaded word to throw around, and it’s not entirely accurate, but it was the one that kept coming to my mind. While Heinlein is certainly capable of creating strong and independent female characters, and emphasizes over and over again that both Eunice and Joan are actively choosing the lives they lead, those lives are almost entirely dependent on and revolve around men. One of Smith’s first actions when he goes from Johann to Joan is to latch on to a man – her old friend Jake Saloman. She views her identity as a woman as incomplete without a man to base it on, and spends most of the book trying to figure out who she is in relation to men – Jake, her security guards, Eunice’s widower, and more. She repeatedly mentions how helpless she is without a Big Strong Man in her life, and all of this culminates in what is possibly one of the most misogynist moments I have ever read in sci-fi: a spanking scene.

And not a sexy one, either. In a moment of adolescent pique that Jake won’t sleep with her when she wants him to, Joan throws a fit, disrupting their dinner plans. Jake proceeds to throw her over his knee and give her a spanking because, and I’m quoting here, “You were being difficult… and it is the only thing I know of which will do a woman any good when a man can’t do for her what she needs.” Joan accepts the spanking meekly, not only thanking Jake for his spanking, but also claiming that she had her first orgasm while he did it.

Wow. That’s nearly as bad as the other major female character, Winnie, who talks about a gang rape experience with what can almost be imagined as fondness.

Oddly enough, this is not my biggest problem with the book. I mean, it was written in the late ’60s, and it reflects the thinking of that era. For all his progressive beliefs, Heinlein was still a man of his time, and it really shows here. Legend [1] has it that he was really sick when he wrote this book, and that may have had something to do with the fact that no matter how many complex hot-button issues he touches (gender roles, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, overpopulation, government overreach), the fact remains that there is no story in this book.

This picture contains more conflict than this book

Let me explain. A story needs conflict. It needs not only a protagonist that is trying to achieve something, but obstacles that impede that achievement. There were so many potential goals and obstacles to be explored in this story – a man’s brain in a woman’s body – but Heinlein manages to artfully dodge all of them. The story of Smith’s inner struggle to resolve the gender he grew up with with the gender he now possesses would have been fascinating. But it didn’t happen. Smith pretty much accepts the change right away, with few if any reservations. Even so, he could have struggled with how to live as a woman – should he adopt the identity that a patriarchal society would confer upon him as a woman, or forge his own as a uniquely gendered person who has gone from the privileged to the unprivileged sex? Unfortunately, the conflict doesn’t even occur to Joan. She decided to be the best woman she can be, constantly asking others what that entails, rather than asking herself.

Or how about the concept of Identity itself? Smith is an old brain in a new body, so is he legally the same person he was before the surgery? That would be an amazing story as he tries to prove that Johann has become Joan, and that even though Eunice’s body is still walking around, she’s actually dead. But no – Smith has some powerful legal friends with ironclad arguments, and the legal proceedings are pretty much a foregone conclusion.

Or how about rejection by society? Regular transgendered people have a hard enough time getting society to accept the modification of the body they were born with – what about when someone takes on an entirely new body? Joan could have struggled to get her friends and family to accept who she has become, to stand before the world with her head held high. But no…. She has enough money that she doesn’t really need society’s approval, none of her friends have any trouble with what she’s become, and even Eunice’s widower has only a moment of uncontrollable emotion before accepting that his wife is dead, but still walking around. And he might get to sleep with her again.

Imagine this in your head ALL the TIME.

One last one – the soul. Joan hears Eunice’s voice in her head, but it’s unclear whether it is really Eunice or if it’s just Joan’s imagination. What’s more, they never fight. They never have a serious disagreement and have to resolve their differences so that they can continue to occupy the same skull. Eunice and Joan live together like wisecracking sisters and never have to deal with the problem of living with someone you can’t get rid of, even if you’re not sure if they’re real.

In other words, there’s no there there. It’s a long, talky, philosophical exploration of some fascinating topics, but as a novel, it’s incredibly dull. You keep waiting for the blow-up, for the accident, for the Big Problem that Joan and Jake have to struggle to overcome, and it never arrives. Everything works out either through money or force of will or Heinlein’s trademark Sheer Damn Reasonableness. Between that and the constant thought of, “He did not just say that,” I found this book rather stressful to plow through. It offers up a lot of big ideas to think on, raises some very important questions, and Heinlein’s gift for dialogue makes some fun conversations, but I think I would have liked it more if it had been completely different.

——————————————————
“Sir, if you want to give me a fat lip, I’ll hold still, smile happily, and take it. Oh, Jake darling, it’s going to be such fun to be married to you!”
“I think so too, you dizzy bitch.”
– Joan and Jake, I Will Fear No Evil by Robert Heinlein
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[1] Wikipedia

Robert Heinlein on Wikipedia
I Will Fear No Evil on Wikipedia
I Will Fear No Evil on Amazon.com
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Filed under afterlife, bad, death, existentialism, friendship, gender, gender roles, ghosts, homosexuality, identity, Robert Heinlein, romance, science fiction, sexuality

Review 114: The Ghost Brigades

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

The book that preceded this one was Old Man’s War. It was Scalzi’s first novel and I loved it. It had everything – high-end science fiction, philosophy, cool battle scenes and a protagonist whose sense of humor reminded me a lot of many of my friends. The book’s premise was very simple – why do we use young people to fight in wars? Because they have the bodies that work best for the task – strong, fast and generally resilient. But young people can also be rash, impulsive and generally ignorant of a whole lot of life’s complexity. If their physical capabilities were not an issue, then who would we want? Why, old people, of course. They have the life experience, the patience and the perspective to be better soldiers.

No.

So, it’s The Future. Mankind has spread out among the stars, and the Colonial Union is the political organization that keeps them together. Any government needs a military, so the Colonial forces make sure they have the best recruits, all brought from Earth. With some pretty high-tech jiggery-pokery, the senior citizens from Earth’s richer nations are made into lean, green fighting machines, capable of performing in ways that make the Marines of our day look like palsey victims. Their minds are transferred from their old, decrepit bodies and put into new ones, grown from their own DNA, but altered to make them better soldiers. It’s all very exciting and cool, but at some point, I suppose Scalzi asked himself a question: what happens when someone signs up at age 65, but doesn’t make it to age 75 when they’re supposed to start their service?

NO!

Well, we have all this DNA just sitting there, right? We can’t let it go to waste, can we?

That brings us to the Ghost Brigades, the rather morbid nickname for the Colonial Union’s Special Forces. Their bodies are grown from DNA whose previous owners have expired, and are modded in more extreme ways than the regular defense force soldiers. Then, when the body is ready, they’re woken up. An amazing piece of biotechnology called, rather whimsically, a BrainPal prepares their brains for consciousness, acting as a kind of bootstrap for the emergent personality. It tells them what they’re supposed to know, so they don’t have to go through the tedious process of learning it all. And, of course, much more. The Special Forces do what the regular Defense Forces can’t, and act in ways that their more “ordinary” soldiers couldn’t understand. In Old Man’s War the Special Forces only came in at the end. In this book, as you might have guessed, they play a much more central role.

I'll show them! I'LL SHOW THEM ALL!!!

Charles Boutin is a traitor to humanity. For reasons known only to him, he has sold out the Colonial Union to its enemies, a troika of alien species that would be more than willing to wipe us off the map. The Defense Forces would love to find him, of course, but he’s hidden himself among the enemy. So they got the next best thing: a copy of his own mind that Boutin had made while researching the BrainPal.

In theory, it should work: put this mental backup copy into a “clean slate,” a body that has no mind of its own. A Special Forces body.

And so, Jared Dirac was born. Decanted. Whatever. It was hoped that when he opened his eyes, he would be Charles Boutin in a new body, and could promptly be interrogated. But it isn’t that easy. Jared Dirac is a normal Special Forces soldier, a blank slate who is ready to do the job he was, literally, born to do: keep humanity safe.

Art by Vincent Chong

He’s sent off to training, with the expectation that he would be just another Special Forces soldier. But he is, of course, much more than that. As his brain matures, the memories and personality of Charles Boutin come with them, and Dirac starts to understand more of what made the man turn traitor to his own species. This information could lead the Defense Forces to their ultimate goal, or to their destruction….

It’s a great book. Tons of fun, although the exposition is a bit heavy-handed in the beginning. There’s a whole lot of reminding about what you learned in Old Man’s War, and I didn’t really need it. That’s the thing about recap, though: if you avoid it altogether, you can confuse people who haven’t picked up the previous book in a while. Slather it on and you bore the people who have good enough memories.

Once you get past that, though, it’s straight on fun, with some pretty serious questions folded into it. One of the major questions raised in this book is that of identity – who is Jared Dirac? How can a being who is brought to full consciousness by an implanted computer be properly called “human?” It’s clear that he is, but a fuller look at the Special Forces – especially the squad known as the Gamerans – really does push the definition of “human” to its limits.

The Japanese cover to Ghost Brigades

It’s a very thoughtful book in many places, exploring the grey areas of not only humanity and “human-ness,” but also of the role of humanity among the stars. Explaining his reason for turning traitor, Boutin asks us to consider the entire purpose of government itself – how it operates, how much power it has and how much it should trust its citizenry. He fundamentally disagrees with how the Colonial Union goes about its business, and will do whatever he has to in order to set it on what he believes is the right path. And in the middle of all this is Jared Dirac, who has to actually start making choices in his life – something that Special Forces soldiers were never bred to do.

As with Old Man’s War, this is a great book to read, and I look forward to the other books set in that universe. You should too.

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“We don’t mind when the other guy brings a gun to a knife fight. It just makes it easier for us to cut out his heart. Or whatever it is that he uses to pump blood.”
Lieutenant Jane Sagan, The Ghost Brigades

The Ghost Brigades on Wikipedia
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Filed under adventure, aliens, ethics, existentialism, fiction, friendship, identity, John Scalzi, military, morality, philosophy, science fiction, technology, transhumanism, truth, war

Review 110: Johnny the Homicidal Manic & SQUEE!

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors by Jhonen Vasquez

I’m putting these two together, because they really do form one larger piece – the craft of an artistic mastermind. Although perhaps “mastermind” isn’t the best word to use here. What do you call the person that they lock up when they’re about fifteen because they keep saying things to their teachers like, “The human body has ten thousand miles of blood vessels in it and I can feel my hate for you coursing through every one?” Or the guy who buys a dog, takes care of it, feeds it, loves it, and then one day realizes that the dog has been spying on him for the CIA for years and buries it in his backyard? Or the angry hobo who lurches up to your car as you wait at the stop light, a bucket of dirty, grey water in one hand and a rotten squeegee in the other and proceeds to molest himself with it, afterwards demanding that you gave him change, quote, “For the show.”

You thought I was kidding about the dog....

That kind of guy. What would you call him?

Whatever it is, welcome to the world of Jhonen Vasquez. Strap yourself in.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is the story of Johnny C., known to his very few friends simply as Nny. Nny is rail-thin, yet something of a fashion plate, and lives in a broken-down house with two evil Styrofoam doughboys, a dead bunny nailed to a wall, and a gateway to a creature of infinite evil somewhere in one of the many basements of the house.

In his free time, Johnny kills people in horrible and graphically interesting ways.

Not because he’s a bad person, necessarily. He does have the wall to feed, after all – a wall that has to be continually painted with fresh blood, lest the Evil come out of it. But he is, by his own admission, “quite horrendously insane.” He murders for many reasons, the Evil Wall aside. He murders the people who feel superior to others (while at the same time feeling that he is superior to them). The kills the smug and the self-possessed, the materialistic and the bored, the lowbrows and the posers and the jerks who seem to infest every corner of his world. And while he does kill with great glee and abandon, he occasionally takes the time to wonder if what he’s doing is worth it. If murder is all that his life has become. If maybe it would be better off to just end it all and kill himself.

Fortunately – or not – he has The Doughboys to keep him company. Two Styrofoam figures, painted by Nny, which talk to him constantly. One urges him to live and kill to his heart’s content. The other presses him to commit suicide and leave this world behind. Whichever wins will be freed from his plastic prison and reunited with his evil master. As a balance to them is Nailbunny, which is pretty much just what it sounds like – a bunny rabbit that Johnny bought from the pet store and then one day nailed to the wall. Nailbunny (or at least its floating head) is the voice of reason in Johnny’s life, urging him to be suspicious of the Doughboys and all they want. Despite his nihilistic view of the world, Johnny discovers that he does indeed have a purpose in life. Just not a very good one.

Yes, Nny, show us "wacky"

Johnny is, naturally, hard to sympathize with. Part of that comes from his almost cavalier attitude towards killing, but more than that, he’s rather adolescent in his view of the world and how it works. Like so many teenagers, he has yet to grow a buffer between himself and the world, and cannot differentiate malicious acts from merely thoughtless ones. He feels every barb and every sting like hooks in his flesh, and the only way he is able to deal with it is through murderous rage. Reading it as an adult who remembers his teen years, I can certainly see where Johnny is coming from, but at the same time I wish he’d just grow up and learn to live in the world like the rest of us.

Which is a statement for which Johnny would no doubt gleefully murder me.

One of the major themes of these comics is conformity and humanity’s need to follow each other into the abyss. Hypocritical characters dressed in all the latest fashions snub people who are slaves to public opinion. One of the worst offenders, a recurring character named Anne Gwish, embodies the modern Goth poser who shuns everyone while despairing that no one talks to her. Johnny’s world is filled with these people and they all need killing. Even people who don’t deserve death might end up falling to Johnny. In one of my favorite stories, “Goblins,” a man who was chosen at random is strapped to a truly terrible machine, and faces his impending death with enviable conviction.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac reads like an extended teenage revenge fantasy, if a highly philosophical and entertaining one. Eventually you figure out that, as Vasquez himself says, “He’s not a loser, he’s simply lost.”

No. Don't do it. Life is too... oh, go ahead.

Themes of identity and social connection continue in the book SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors. Young Squee (whose real name is Todd) is Johnny’s neighbor and is featured in the very first JtHM story. Squee is a pitiful child, with parents who resent his very existence and a school that is constantly trying to crush the spirit out of him. Squee lives a life of unending terror as he’s beset by nightmares, aliens, his cannibalistic grandfather, openly hateful parents, and a world that never seems to make sense. It is his young burden to have to live in a world created by Jhonen Vasquez.

Somehow, though, little Squee manages. Manages to get himself locked into an insane asylum, yes, but manages nonetheless.

The second half of the book features Vasquez’s filler strips – one or two-page stories of pain, heartbreak and horror. Poor Wobbly-Headed Bob tries to convince the rest of the world to accept that he’s smarter than they are, and can’t understand why they want to kill him. True Tales of Human Drama are just that – dramatic, probably human and god I hope they’re not true. Happy Noodle Boy is a free-form anarchistic story, allegedly drawn by Johnny himself, and I can never manage to finish one. My favorite filler strips are the Meanwhile…. strips, one of which features two elementary-school crossing guard children enacting the final battle between two entities of pure evil. Another depicts a first date gone horribly, horribly awry as a case of gastrointestinal distress engenders one of the best attempts to save face I’ve ever seen. A horrible, lying vampire, the revenge of the pinatas, and a case of childhood attachment issues gone horribly wrong, these are some of my favorite works in the whole series.

Good old Ludwig van B. Perfect for any occasion - even mass murder.

The work of Jhonen Vasquez certainly isn’t for everyone. Even his famous animated program, Invader Zim, is a little weirder than most people are willing to accept for a children’s show. It rewards patient reading and careful attention to the artwork. Which, I might add, is distinctive and disturbing and wonderful. Vasquez has created a style that’s cartoonish and yet horrible, in which childlike glee can be rendered next to heart-stopping horror, and we can perfectly believe that they exist in the same world.

It’s strange, horrible and funny all at the same time. If you’re interested in something out of the ordinary, I can definitely recommend this.

—————————————————
“I suggest you seek some alternate source of sympathy, Nny. You tried to kill that girl. She liked you, and you tried to kill her. That was impolite.”
– Nailbunny, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac on Wikipedia
Squee! on Wikipedia
Jhonen Vasquez on Wikipedia
Jhonen Vasquez’s website
Johnny the Homicidal Maniac on Amazon.com
SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors on Amazon.com

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Filed under afterlife, childhood, comic books, death, demons, existentialism, good and evil, graphic novel, horror, humor, Jhonen Vasquez, madness, morality, murder, philosophy, sins

Review 105: Reaper Man

Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

So. What are your thoughts on death?

Or rather, Death?

It’s a weird thing, death. I mean, you’re here one minute and then you’re… not. And while we all know intellectually that we’re going to die, there’s something in us that refuses to believe that the essential Person that we are could possibly cease to exist. We have personalities, unique aggregations of memory and experience and inborn preferences that all display themselves as a Person, as far as we know unique in all the world. Each human being is an entity that will never be seen again in this universe, and as far as we know, the cessation of life brings that entity to an end, reducing the person we knew to a mere insentiate object.

Is it any wonder we come up with stories for what happens… y’know, after?

Just about very culture that’s ever been has come up with some form of afterlife, be it an eternal feast for heroes, a paradise in which we can bask in God’s glory, a place of exquisite pain and torment, or a ticket back to Earth for another go ’round. There is no way of knowing if any of those are actually what happens to us when we die. At least not until we actually do it. So since we cannot know, we make stuff up, if only to make the whole thing easier to bear.

What often goes with that other world is someone to take us over. A ferryman or a guide, someone who knows the territory and knows where we need to go in what is very likely a rather confusing time. It’s another piece of comfort – knowing that there’s Someone out there who knows where we need to go and what we need to do.

Grim indeed.... (photo by provia_17)

Which brings us to Death.

 

He’s been portrayed many ways over the years – my favorite is the Death from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series – a sort of older sister who’s known you all your life and loves you anyway. If she shows up for me when I die, I think I’ll be okay.

I would be just as happy with Pratchett’s Death, even though he is the more traditional robes-scythe-and-skeleton type. Fans of Discworld love Death, which I imagine was somewhat baffling for Pratchett early on. In the first few books, Death was a bit character – he showed up a couple of times to collect the recently deceased, and that was it. But his scenes were so memorable and so good that they sometimes stuck out above the rest of the book. He speaks entirely in capital letters, which lends him a voice that is probably reminiscent of James Earl Jones. He’s aloof, but not uncaring, and seems to take a rather curious interest in humanity. He likes cats, has a house off on the edge of nowhere, and rides a great white steed named Binky. Death has become, in short, an interesting person.

And it seems that’s a problem.

The Universe, you see, is a finely tuned instrument, one which needs monitoring and, occasionally, adjusting. There are… let’s call them Auditors, who make sure that reality stays real – no odd deviations or anomolies such as, for example, anthropomorphic personifications of natural forces. In all honesty, they would eliminate all life if they could, but that is, as yet, beyond their capabilities. So they settle for telling Death that it’s time for him to retire. He gets a little hourglass all his own, and time to kill until the new Death comes into being.

Heya Tom, it's Bob - from the office down the hall... (photo by Scott Beale)

In the interim, this time between Deaths, a new problem arises: nothing is dying. Or, to be more specific, things are dying, but the vital energies that empowered everything, from cabbages to clergymen, aren’t being taken away. Without a Death to handle this very vital – so to speak – function, the life energy is looking for a place to go, an outlet. As a result, things that shouldn’t be alive are up and moving around. In some cases this means objects running along of their own accord, and in others it means that the dead simply have nowhere to go.

Such is the case with the wizard Windle Poons. After 130 years at the Unseen University, he was rather looking forward to a nice rest and then a bit of reincarnation as a woman in a far more liberal society. What he got instead was nothingness. Given that option, he went back to his body and became Undead, much to the consternation of the rest of the UU faculty. Unfortunately for them, they have bigger things to worry about – the buildup of life force is having a rather larger and more dangerous effect on the city of Ankh-Morpork itself. The lack of a Death may well doom the city in a manner that will be horribly familiar to many of Pratchett’s readers.

And where is Death in all this, or at least the person who used to be Death? He has found a small farm below the famous Ramtop Mountains. An old maid, Miss Flitworth, needs a hand and Death needs a way to spend his time – something he’s never had to worry about before. He takes the alias Bill Door and starts to learn what it means to be alive, despite the short time he has left.

"What can the harvest hope for if not the care of the reaper man?" (art by Andrew Mar)

The book, as you might imagine, is all about being alive. What makes life special and precious and ultimately worth living. Windle Poons let life go past while he grew old behind the university walls, and it is only in death that he finds out all that fun he’d missed. Bill Door learns that it is the fragility of life, and its most certain end, which ultimately gives it meaning. In the middle, we see that everything that can live yearns to do so, from the mayflies to the great Counting Pines to cities to ideas.

 

While the book gives no answers to what may happen after death (the Discworld books rarely do), it does give us another way to look at life. And that, ultimately, is the goal of any great story.

——————————————————
“Huh! Priests! They’re all the same. Always telling you that you’re going to live again after you’re dead, but you just try it and see the look on their faces!”
Reg Shoe, Reaper Man

Discworld on Wikipedia
Reaper Man on Wikipedia
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Terry Pratchett on Wikipedia
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Terry Pratchett’s official site

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Filed under afterlife, death, Discworld, existentialism, fantasy, finitude, humor, Terry Pratchett, wizardry, zombies

Review 100: Machine of Death


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.

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“What good is knowing the future if you can’t do anything with the knowledge?”
Dad, from “Friendly Fire” by Douglas J. Lane
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Filed under David Malki !, death, existentialism, humor, Matthew Bennardo, Ryan North, science fiction, short stories