November 07, 2011

BOOKS: Machine of Death, ed. North/Bennardo/Malki! (2011)

Machine of Death is an anthology inspired by this comic. Imagine a machine that takes a drop of blood, then spits out a piece of paper that tells you how you will die. No dates, mind you, and not many details. And the machine is prone to vagueness and ambiguity. If your paper says SUICIDE, for instance, you're not necessarily going to kill yourself; you might be one of the casualties of a suicide bomber.

Some predictions are less inherently vague than others, of course. A prediction like TORN APART AND DEVOURED BY LIONS doesn't seem to leave much room for interpretation, and as one character says, "I'm not likely to be hit crossing the street by a runaway colon cancer, am I?"

The 34 stories collected here are each titled with the printout from one prediction slip, usually that of the story's protagonist. There's been no effort on the part of the editors to place the stories into a single world, and different stories imagine very different societal reactions to the existence of the machine. In some, everyone is tested at birth; in others, the test is a teenage rite of passage akin to getting your driver's license.

Some of the stories are quite funny. Alexander Danner's "Aneurysm" tells of a man who finds a way to escape his ex-wife's horrid party games; Camille Alexa's "Flaming Marshmallow" reminds us that teenage cliques and peer pressure will adapt to any new circumstance.

But there's a wide range of moods -- the poignance of Pelotard's "Nothing," the heartbreak of Dalisa Chaponda's "While Trying to Save Another," the existential angst of John Chernega's "Almond," the remarkably concise resignation of Brian Quinlan's "HIV Infection from Machine of Death Needle."

Editors Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki! (the "!" is not a typo; that's how Malki! spells his name) are working on a second collection of Machine of Death stories, and I'm looking forward to it. I wouldn't have imagined that so many variations could be rung on a theme that seems, at first glance, rather limited.

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