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Monday, May 23, 2011

Machine of Death

Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories about People Who Know How They Will Die is...well, best explained by the people who conceived of it in the first place.  From the "About" page of the Machine of Death website:
Machine of Death is an anthology of short stories edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki!, inspired by this episode of Ryan’s Dinosaur Comics. From January 15, 2007, through April 30, 2007, Ryan, Matt, and David invited everybody in the world to submit short stories for the book, without fee or prejudice. Hundreds of writers from five continents took them up on the offer.
To read the rest of the back story, including the part about how they accidentally trod upon Glenn Beck's ego by outselling his latest book* (which was released on the same day as Machine of Death,) go here.

Machine of Death is a story anthology where all of the stories share a common concept, though not necessarily a common universe.  The rules are simple: there exists a machine, not necessarily called the Machine of Death, which can, by means of a simple blood test, reveal to you your cause of death. Results are always accurate, and are always repeatable.** But they may not be expressed in the clearest manner, and may actually be whimsical or ironic.  As T-rex stated in the original proposal, the machine delights in ironically vague deaths. "Old Age" could mean that you will be killed be an old guy, while "Natural Causes" could mean that you will be hit on the head by a falling koala. Even nearly-identical deaths could be expressed in different ways.

Because the stories don't share a common universe, there is no "bible" for the book, no set of rules (other than the ones already mentioned) and no official creation/invention/discovery story.  Machine of Death contains at least three different and contradictory stories of how the machine came into being, and numerous stories contradict each other on specific points.  (One story states that a blank result card is an impossibility; two others are written around the consequences of receiving a blank card.)

The book is available in numerous formats, including an ink-on-paper softcover for $17 (U.S.), an e-book version, and a free pdf download containing the complete contents of the softcover.

The stories are a mixed bag.  Some are quite good, some less so.  Cleverly, the name of the author of each story does not appear until the end, unless you read through the table of contents, so you are not prejudiced by any expectations based on the author - and sometimes you are surprised to see who has written what.  Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki! each have stories in the collection, and I believe Malki! has two.  My favorite story, "WHILE TRYING TO SAVE ANOTHER," is an occasionally gut-wrenching tale of love in the face of certain death with the most powerfully placed final four words of any story I have ever read - and was written by Daliso Chaponda, a comedian who was once deported from Canada.

I didn't find out about Machine of Death until shortly before it came out, so I was several years too late to write and submit a story.  But a few weeks ago a call for submissions for the second volume went out, and I immediately began blocking out my own story.  Each author is allowed to submit three stories for consideration, but I only have one - so far. (Anyone who would like to critically review it, please let me know.  A friend did an out-loud reading of it for me yesterday, and I heard at least one line that just sounded ridiculous and needs to be changed.  Surprisingly, he read many of the passages exactly as I had heard them as I wrote them.)

I might have two more stories in me, but I don't know.  There are two three forms of story that I would love to see included that were not in the first volume, but that I don't think I'm capable of writing. 

- First would be historical fiction: How would various historical figures react if they knew how they would die?  If Attila the Hun got a result that said "NOSEBLEED," or Alexander the Great got "CAROUSING," or William Henry Harrison received "LONG-WINDEDNESS?"***
- Another would be a story in the steampunk genre: Victorian attitudes overlaid with advanced technology with a Victorian design sensibility, and characters trying to deal with this machine that spouts vague but infallible predictions.
- I'd also like to see the Machine of Death in the context of a literary pastiche, or even a mash-up of literary pastiches in the style of Kim Newman's Anno Dracula series or Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen stories.

The second volume promises to be at least as interesting as the first.  This time around, authors have seen the stories in volume 1, and may be thinking "I can do better than that" or "Hmmm, there's an idea I can build on." If you think you might have a story in you, go through the stories in volume 1 and then get writing! Deadline for submissions is July 15, 2011.  Complete submission guidelines can be found here, with additional helpful information here and here.


*Side note: On a trip to the local not-closing branch of Borders this weekend I noticed that Glenn Beck's book and Keith Richards' autobiography, both of which released on the same day as Machine of Death, were on a table just inside the store marked "50% OFF PAST BESTSELLERS" - aka "NEXT STOP, REMAINDERVILLE." Machine of Death was not on that table.  Truth be told, I couldn't find it anywhere, though the Borders book locater computer advised me that it was "Likely in store."

**At least one story - "NOT WAVING BUT DROWNING" - suggests that results may become more refined with repeated tests or the passage of time. Another rule is that the title of each story must be a Machine of Death result; not necessarily the result given for any character in the story, and not necessarily a result that is stated within the story.  "DESPAIR" is an example of the latter.

***Then there is the one about the Oracle at Delphi:
Another story is the answer to the Lydian king Croesus asking the Oracle is he should attack the Persian king Cyrus. The Oracle said that a great empire will fall if Croesus would cross the River Halys. Stupid enough Croesus did not ask which empire will fall and assumed that it was the Persian empire.

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