Morbidity and Mortality

I'm a pretty cheerful person in general, but I have a wide streak of morbidity running through me. It's why I enjoy movies like Series 7 and TV shows like Dead Like Me and books like Battle Royale. Death is scary, but it sure is fascinating. So while I can't quite remember how the "Machine of Death" books came to my attention, when I heard about this series of short stories, I jumped on board instantly.

The books (Machine of Death (2010) and This is How You Die (2013)) were edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !, and the central conceit is deceptively simple: Imagine that a machine is invented and installed in malls and street corners and doctor offices around the world. The machine takes a little sample of your blood and spits out a card upon which is written the method of your demise. No timeline or circumstances are provided. Just CANCER or PRETZEL or HEAT DEATH OF THE UNIVERSE. The machine is never wrong, but there's a kink, in that it's not above manipulating the ambiguities of language. OLD AGE could mean that you pass away in your sleep at age 96, or that you're run over by an elderly driver fifteen seconds after receiving your card. Authors of every stripe and nationality submitted stories with this premise, and the editors whittled them down to two extremely engrossing collections.

The stories vary wildly, from funny to heart-breaking. From fantastical to realistic. From science fiction to romance. Each story is titled with the card's description, but there's no way of telling what type of story you're about to get into. After all, we may all have preconceptions about a person who's destined to die by PRISON KNIFE FIGHT, and in a very clever turn, those preconceptions are what that particular story is all about.

While a little bit of winking rug-pulling is welcome, I wouldn't have enjoyed these books so much if they were all ironic "Gotcha!" stories, like someone with a CANCER card getting shot by someone born on July 8th. The stories are fortunately a lot deeper than that. The different ways one might react to the knowledge of their mode of death are practically endless. Would you want to get tested? If so, how would you treat the results? Would it be a relief? A never-ending source of torment? Would you try and escape your fate? Ignore it? Welcome it? Use it as an opportunity to live out your remaining time in a completely different way? What if your results are confusing? Or embarrassing?

It should be mentioned that not all the stories end with death. Plenty of the characters who receive their cards make it out of the story alive and well. It's the reaction to the card where the true stories lie. Machine of Death firmly established the premise, and This is How You Die built on it in incredible ways. Both books were good, but it was the second one that really shined. I honestly have no idea if I'd want to know the results on my card, if it were available. The only thing I know about my future is that if a third anthology of this series is released, I'll be all over it.

Machine of Death: B
This is How You Die: A-


Jeffrey Ricker said...

My friend 'Nathan wrote the first story in This Is How You Die! I love that you loved this book.

Limecrete said...

I know! I saw that, and wondered if you were the one that originally recommended the series to me. But I think I read a review somewhere. Tell him I loved it!

Jeffrey Ricker said...

Consider it done! I just sent him a tweet directing him over here.

Anonymous said...

Well damn, that just put the cherry on my day. Thanks to you both!

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