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Review: Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo and David Malki! (eds.) 'Machine of Death'.


     A note: I'm not planning on giving away the details of any stories in this collection, but I will be referring to the words written on several slips of paper received by characters. There is a reason for this: knowing the answer doesn't give away the endings here. That's the beauty of the Machine of Death: it tells you how you'll die, but you'll still be surprised when it happens.

     I picked up this book largely because it had some names I recognised on the jacket: Ben 'Yahtzee' Croshaw, David Malki! and Randall Munroe make an appearance as writers, and other illustrious names have contributed illustrations, including Kate Beaton (of Hark, a Vagrant fame) and Dorothy Gambrell (Cat and Girl). I was expecting something irreverent, I suppose; something that poked fun at the inevitability of death and the paths people might take to avoid or embrace it. And, to a degree, I got that.

     The Machine of Death, the central premise of each story in this rather impressive volume, can tell from a blood sample how you will die. And it will tell you, on a slip of paper that simply reads CANCER or DROWNED or OLD AGE. Every character in this book lives in a world where this happens, and from there, the stories spiral out in one of a few ways:
     - An ironic or unexpected death. As T-Rex tells us in the introduction, OLD AGE doesn't mean AFTER MANY YEARS, STOPS BREATHING, WHILE ASLEEP, WITH SMILE ON FACE. It could mean being stabbed by an old person.
     - The machine is unusual.  One can prepare for PLANE CRASH, but when the slip of paper reads GERALD, or BETRAYAL, or has nothing written at all, or two words over the top of one another...
     In fact, the best part of this book is how varying people's responses are to the Machine. A huge number of styles, a huge number of worlds with this technology, from dystopian to everyday, crowd onto the pages of this book. Far be it from me to wish for something shorter, especially as I read it in two four-hour sittings, but I imagine for some people that's why short stories are good. I just can't stop at one, though.
     There's a arc throughout this book, too, moving from the personal to the metaphysical. The irreverence of stories like 'PIANO' or 'HIV INFECTION FROM MACHINE OF DEATH NEEDLE' give way to absolutely astounding insights in the second half of the book, as in 'MURDER AND SUICIDE, RESPECTIVELY', where the Machine is turned to the concept of faster-than-light travel (and which I had to read three times to understand), and 'NOTHING', which boggled my mind.

     For me, I'm reviewing it not only because I think most people I know would enjoy something in here, but also because it gave me one of the most terrifying experiences I've had when confronted with a blank page. Neil Gaiman's Sandman story '24 Hours' stopped me sleeping, but that was lingering terror. Two nights ago, I sat, clutching my knee as I scrolled through a story simply marked 'STARVATION'. The opening image didn't do anything to settle me.
     This book is probably going to be suggested as recommended reading for creative writing courses, and I may be compelled to beat them to it by commissioning some stories related to this premise. It'd be worth it. So's this book.

     Oh, and for the record? I think the machine would predict TRIPPING for me.
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