Category Archives: existentialism

Books about or on the theme of existentialism.

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.

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“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
Death on Wikipedia
Terry Pratchett on Wikipedia
Reaper Man on Amazon.com
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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Machine of Death homepage
Machine of Death on Amazon.com

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Filed under David Malki !, death, existentialism, humor, Matthew Bennardo, Ryan North, science fiction, short stories