A few months ago, I read submissions for Apex Publications’ upcoming Glitter & Mayhem anthology. Reading the slush, and reading more stuff about it in the aftermath, I’ve learned something about what it takes to put together a good themed anthology. Specifically, don’t take stories that do obvious things with the stated theme.
Machine of Death, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !, is a collection of short stories that upholds that lesson in spades.
First, the theme, originally proposed by Dinosaur Comics: in the future, a machine is invented that can predict how a person will die based on a small blood sample. The machine is always correct, yet its predictions are vague and cryptic, resulting in deaths that are unexpected yet technically accurate.
The great pleasure of MoD is seeing what ways the authors have devised of going beyond the obvious idea of people meeting their demises in unexpected yet delightfully ironic ways. Instead, the strongest of these stories talk about what changes this new technology would have on our society, or how it would subvert previously-normal aspects of our lives. This is a long collection – at 34 stories, perhaps exhaustively so, and this length is my only complaint about the book – so instead of going through each story, I’ll pick out a few of my favourites:
“Torn Apart and Devoured by Lions” by Jeffrey C. Wells – I loved that the main character actively welcomes his death and is conditioning his body to be as healthy as possible when he dies, all so that the lions who are destined to eat him will have a good meal. This one had great dialogue, a truly memorable character, and an ending that reminded me a lot of Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt”.
“Firing Squad” by J. Jack Unrau – The framing story on this one is slightly odd, but the political commentary (as well as the uncomfortable truths it exposes about the ignorance of many rich Westerners backpacking through a developing country) pleased my inner university student.
“HIV Infection from Machine of Death Needle” by Brian Quinlan – It’s all there in the title, folks. Audaciously brief.
“Not Waving but Drowning” by Erin McKean – This is my favourite from the entire collection. It’s brief, but the narrative voice behind it is spot on. I felt like I really knew this character – a high-schooler in a place where the MoD tests are mandated for all students – and why she made the choices she did to keep her death prediction private.
“Exhaustion from Having Sex with a Minor” by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw – Saucy title aside, this is a clever send-up of the media circus surrounding a political campaign. What really makes it is the twist at the end, which would have been impossible to conceal in any other narrative medium.
“Cocaine and Painkillers” by David Malki ! – This one went on a bit longer than it needed to, but it turns out that combining the Machine of Death with institutional sexism and infomercials is a success.
“Prison Knife Fight” by Shaenon K. Garrity – Yet another one that comes up with a unique societal implication for the MoD: the death predictions are used as part of the screening and application process for elite preppy pre-schools. Here, the title knife fighter is one such toddler under consideration, and his plebeian manner of demise looms large over his patrician family as he grows up and slouches towards Yale.
“While Trying to Save Another” by Daliso Chaponda – Most of this story didn’t work for me, especially the main character, but there was one scene within it of particular beauty. In it, a secondary character knows that she will die tomorrow, and hosts a farewell party for her friends – the secrets they reveal, and the manner in which the person about to be murdered wishes to be remembered, is extremely poignant.
“Miscarriage” by James L. Sutter – I think this story subverts the anthology’s theme the most out of the entire collection. Ultimately, the death machine bodes well for the start of a life, rather than the end of one. It all hinges on the final line of dialogue.
“Cassandra” by C.E. Guimont – This is the last story in the book, and I can see why the editors chose to close it out with this one. Not only is it the only one in the collection that actually attempts to give a full explanation of where the machine’s predictive powers come from, but more importantly, it shows the devastating length to which one person will go to save herself – and the entire world – from destruction.
Anyways, if you’re up for some morbid, intriguing fiction – or if you happen to love neon green dinosaurs – Machine of Death is a worthy read, despite its length. The sequel anthology, This Is How You Die, will be coming out in July. I’m looking forward into seeing what new ways these contributors will reinvent its central concept.