Machine of Death (Ed. by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo and David Malki!)

Machine of Death is a short story collection edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo and David Malki!.You can download it here. But you should buy it if you can. ;)

All the stories in the book revolve around one basic premise: That there’s a world where you can get your blood tested and the test results will tell you how you’re going to die. It’s all based on this Dinosaur Comic. Each story is illustrated by a single picture from a webcomic artist.

In the foreword, the editors state that they chose the stories not only according to quality but also by what they did with the idea and how they changed society through it. This is an interesting concept and one they stuck to quite well – the tone of the stories varies as much as the consequences from the machines.
Unfortunately the stories vary widely in quality, too. The most consistently good thing are the illustrations, though far from all of them are to my liking.

Nevertheless, Machine of Death is an interesting book and a fun one. There’s something in it for everyone, some fodder for thought and some good laughs.

More about each story individually and some of the illustrations after the jump.

A short warning: As I was continuously working on this review as I was reading the book, it got a bit massive. Sorry about that.

Flaming Marshmallow by Camille Alexa, illustrated by Shannon Wheeler

It’s Carolyn 16th birthday, which means it’s the day she’s finally allowed to find out her Cause of Death. Which in turn means that she’ll finally know which high school clique she belongs to – the burners, the crashers, the chokers…
I totally loved the idea of high school hierarchy according to cause of death and Alexa works it very well. And the scenes between Carolyn and her dad are really sweet.
Shannon Wheeler’s illustration didn’t do that much for me, though.

Fudge by Kit Yona, illustrated by Vera Brosgol

Rick and his girlfriend are at the mall, when Rick stumbles upon one of the machines and decides to use it on a whim. But the result is not exactly what he expected.
The story is nice, but it’s apparent that not as much thought went into it as in the first story. But it has some nice ironic-death-substories.
Vera Brosgol’s illustration on the other hand is great.

Torn Apart and Devoured by Lions by Jeffrey Wells, illustrated by Christopher Hastings

Simon got the news a few weeks earlier: he was going to be torn apart and devoured by lions. Ever since the revelation, his life has changed completely; though probably not in the way you’d expect.
Torn Apart and Devoured by Lions is the first of the stories which used the concept to comic effect – and it works very well. It was also interesting to think about the insurance company angle of the machine. Also, I loved the word “guesstimating”. Very important vocabulary which shall be used regularly from now on.
Chris Hastings’ illustration is definitely the best so far.

Despair by K. M. Lawrence, illustrated by Dean Trippe

A doctor in a hospital receives a patient whose card reads “Tests”. Which puts her in a whole new sort of moral dilemma.
The premise is brilliant. Of course, doctors would have to change the way they acted around their patients according to their cards. Fascinating thought.
The illustration is really good, too.

Suicide by David Michael Wharton, illustrated by Brian McLachlan

Tommy is preparing for his death, which his card said would be suicide.
This story was bleak, mostly. I didn’t like it very much.
The illustration was also a little meh.

Almond by John Chernega, illustrated by Paul Horn

A lab technician in charge keeps a log of the machine’s tests and slowly turns it into a journal of the machine’s rise.
I really liked this story. It was interesting and well-written. Only the ending broke the fourth wall a bit, which I didn’t like that much. [SPOILER] And I would have liked to get an actual test result for the guy. [/SPOILER]
The illustration was cool. I like the style.

Starvation by Matthew Bennardo, illustrated by Karl Kerschl

Two soldiers – Dalton and Johnny – get stranded in a jungle after an helicopter crash. Dalton’s card reads homicide, Johnny’s starvation.
This story is practically the definition of “bleak.” It’s well-written, though it runs a tad too long and it’s an interesting idea, but most of all, it’s dark.
Karl Kerschl’s illustration captures this perfectly.

Cancer by Camron Miller, illustrated by Les McClaine

Marion is very much upper class and they generally frown on the machine. But Marion herself is tempted to use it.
Meh. This was very short, which in this case is a good thing, because it was pretty bland.
The illustration was also rather bland, though well-executed.

Firing Squad by J Jack Unrau, illustrated by Brandon Bolt

Two old friends meet up. One of them has travelled extensively and tells a story about the one time he got a Machine of Death for revolutionaries in Asia who want to use it as a traitor-detection-device.
The story was a little too contrived for my taste. It just seemed like the story was made to fit one basic concept – traitor detection by MoD – and that didn’t make too much sense and the revolutionaries should have seen that. But if they had, the story wouldn’t have happened.
But then again, there’s the phrase “inconsequential tiramisu.”
I didn’t like the illustration much, either.

Vegetables by Chris Cox, illustrated by Kevin McShane

Mick decides to pay a visit to his friend Frank, who recently used the machine and got the result “vegetables.” Frank asks him for help and Mick gladly does – but in quite a different way than Frank imagined.
The story has a nice idea, but it’s pretty badly written, with random time changes and a bit of non-sequiturs.
The illustration is awesome.

Piano by Rafa Franco, illustrated by Kean Soo

A young man gets the result “piano.” After the initial shock, he realises that that means he can become a pilot without fear of ever crashing.
I took an instant dislike to the protagonist/narrator which made the story practically impossible to enjoy.
I did like the illustration a whole lot, however.

HIV Infection from a Machine of Death Needle by Brian Quinlan, illustrated by KC Green

No plot, just utter brilliance.
The illustration was ok.

Exploded by Tom Francis, illustrated by Jesse Reklaw

Exploded chronicles the two inventors of the MoD – Pete and Jason – and the life they (try to) lead after their invention goes public.
I think this might just be the best story so far (apart from the HIV one). It was well written and had an interesting angle. And I liked this part:

I was realising most of this as I said it. I felt sick. We were fucked.
“We’re fucked, aren’t we?”
“We’re not fucked.” I thought about it. We were definitely fucked.
“No, we’re not fucked.”
He shook his head. “We’re so fucked.”
I sighed. We were so, so fucked.

I didn’t like the illustration, though.

Not Waving But Drowning by Erin McKean, illustrated by Carly Monardo

Like all other high schoolers, a young girl waits for her ticket and wonders what it could be.
The story wasn’t bad (though the language didn’t always feel appropriate for a teenage girl) but I just didn’t feel like it brought anything new to the table.
The illustration was wonderful.

Improperly Prepared Blowfish by Gord Sellar, illustrated by Jeffrey Brown

Two yakuza members return to their boss with a freshly stolen MoD. Things aren’t as tension-free, though, as they seem at first.
I liked that we got a different cultural perspective in this one, it being seit in Japan. But I didn’t like the twist, that didn’t work for me.
The illustration is pretty scary.

Love Ad Nauseum by Sherri Jacobsen, illustrated by Kate Beaton

No real plot, just a series of personal ads.
It was a sweet idea, but I didn’t think it works too well. It could have done with a little exaggeration. Also, it didn’t have much to do with the MoD. [Also, shouldn’t it be nauseam?]
I just love Beaton’s style.

Murder and Suicide, Respectively by Ryan North, illustrated by Aaron Diaz

A short play about two scientist discussing the more creative uses of the MoD.
The idea behind this story is absolutely brilliant. Loved it.
The illustration was nice, but nothing to write home about.

Cancer by David Malki!, illustrated by Danielle Corsetto

James’ father is slowly dying of lymphoma. His parents try to cope with that by going to a cult, which James is not happy about.
The story didn’t really have anything to do with the MoD, but it was a beautiful and sad story about loss.
The illustration was drawn from a pretty unsettling perspective.

Aneurysm by Alexander Danner, illustrated by Dorothy Gambrell

A dinner party: the hostess brings out a MoD to introduce a party game: can you tell who dies of what?
The characters in the story were very well drawn, but I knew half of the twist practically from the beginning.
I really liked the illustration – very cartoonish.

Exhaustion From Having Sex With A Minor by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, illustrated by Cameron Stewart

Dunmere is running for Prime Minister – but his death prediction says that he is to die from exhaustion from having sex with a minor, which is kinda a big campaign killer. And also makes Dunmere doubt his own suitability for the job.
I thought the idea was interesting that because of the predictions, people would grow up much quicker. But the story itself lacked a bit of spark and left me cold.
I liked the illustration, though. “The Scum” indeed.

After Many Years, Stops Breathing, While Asleep, With Smile On Face by William Grallo, illustrated by Scott C.

Ricky – who has the nice titular prediction – gets invited to a Toe Tag Night by his co-worker Jill whom he’s crushing on.
This story was really cute and sweet and went into a direction that wasn’t done before: That maybe, the MoD wouldn’t change that much after all. And there’s also this brilliant line:

The truth was, stepping out to the curb, I didn’t feel much like a pimp. More like the pimp’s tagalong little brother, who had not himself gone into the family pimping business, but chose coding instead.

The illustration was a perfect fit, having all this warmth and joy, despite all the skulls.

Killed by Daniel by Julia Wainwright, illustrated by Marcus Thiele

Robin only recently got his prediction, which he didn’t even share yet with his boyfriend Phil. The question remains: will it be his son Daniel?
The story was very well written, though it got a tad too poetic for my taste in the last couple of paragraphs. But I liked Wainwright’s style and I liked the characters.
The illustration was the first I’d call actually pretty, in a rather romantic way. It, too, fit the story very well.

Friendly Fire by Douglas J. Lane, illustrated by Kelly Tindall

Tommy is part of a group who revolts against the machines and tries to destroy them all.
I thought it was interesting to see the machines really from the violent counterculture, but the story didn’t really do anything for me.
Neither did the illustration.

Nothing by Pelotard, illustrated by John Allison

Christine visits her grandfather in the Irish backcountry. But there’s a mystery surrounding him.
I liked the idea of the story – though it’s definitely more fantastic than scientific, imo – but the story just told me all the implications and didn’t let me think about them myself.
But the illustration was very nice, in a cutesy way.

Cocaine and Painkillers by David Malki!, illustrated by Jess Fink

Kelly is a producer of infomercials. She gets a new product from her slimy boss Jack. Nobody seems to know what it does exactly, so Kelly has to come up with something on her own.
I liked the idea of how this version of MoD was introduced into the world, via infomercials. And the story is well-written. I also liked Kelly.
The illustration was nice, but nothing that stuck.

Loss of Blood by Jeff Stautz, illustrated by Kris Straub

A couple of paramedics get called to an emergency.
In this story, the plot is not that important – it’s the world-building that takes center-stage. And it’s awesome, well-written world-building, the MoD going full distopian. One of my favorite stories. And I loved this passage:

Sometimes at night when I touch my forehead to Helene’s, I can feel her thoughts turning inside her. They brush my skin like whispers (…)

The illustration is very evocative.

Prison Knife Fight by Shaenon K. Garrity, illustrated by Roger Langridge

Mr and Mrs Weathington-Beech try to get their son Cotton into a good kindergarden and a good school, even though his MoD result is Prison Knife Fight.
The story is okay. The idea is nice, the execution is fine, but it just never passes above average. The thing I enjoyed most about it are the names.
The same thing (minus the names) goes for the illustration.

While Trying to Save Another by Daliso Chaponda, illustrated by Dylan Meconis

The MoD started to give some people the exact date of their death. In one of the ensuing self-help groups, Timothy meets Isma and they quickly discover that they will both die on the same day in a fire while trying to save another.
The story’s idea is very nice but it drags on and I did not like the writing style. And it just got a tad too sappy for my taste.
I did like the illustration, though.

Miscarriage by James L. Sutter, illustrated by Rene Engström

Ryan and Annie meet at night in the park to read one of the most important messages in their lives.
The story starts with a very nice description:

The city is beautiful at night. Long after the sun goes down, when the last rays have left the horizon scorched and aching, the buildings show their true shapes, silhouettes against the black with lights that twinkle orange and red. These are not the buildings, not anymore—rather, they’re the buildings’ ideas of themselves, the barest sketches. The burned-in after-image of a skyline put to bed.
With the fall of dusk, things simultaneously expand and contract. The streets open up, and familiar drivers can run them like rabbits in a warren, every turn practiced a thousand times and unimpeded by hesitant outsiders. It’s a delicate dance. The people thin out, and suddenly the extra interactions—the vacant smiles and nods that mean nothing—are stripped out as well, and every meeting becomes one of significance. You see only who you want to see, and if you see someone else, it’s because you wanted to see them and just didn’t know it. Or they wanted to see you.

But after that, it runs on just the teensiest bit too long and – even though I liked the general thought process behind the story – I just kept losing interest.
The illustration is great, though.

Shot by Sniper by Bartholomew von Klick, illustrated by John Keogh

Lieutenant Grale gets the MoD result “Shot by Sniper” and later finds himself under attack by one.
I thought it interesting how the other soldiers reacted to Grale’s result, but other than that, the story left me cold.
The illustration didn’t do much for me, either.

Heat Death of the Universe by James Foreman, illustrated by Ramón Pérez

Brian and Maggie are highschool sweethearts who are finally allowed to get tested after their 18th birthday. They’re both nervous about it and their results do little to reassure them.
I loved how Foreman created Stephen Hawking’s thinkings about the MoD and it’s used very nicely. Interesting things to think about.
I also very much liked the illustration.

Drowning by C. E. Guimont, illustrated by Adam Koford

A psychich finds himself in a bad spell when the Machine causes his business to dry up.
I liked the general idea, but the story was mostly meh. [Also because by that time I was really waiting for another funny story.]
The illustration was ok.

? by Randall Munroe, illustrated by Kazu Kibuishi

A man fights to get some answers from the universe that the MoD posed.
I think this story asks some of the most interesting questions in the entire book and draws some of the most fascinating conclusions. Take this passage for example:

“You can’t just say what’s going to happen ahead of time. That’s not how physical law works. That’s narrative. And when reality is twisted to fit narrative, that’s not natural. That’s someone making stories happen.”

The illustration is a perfect fit.

Cassandra by T. J. Radcliffe, illustrated by Matt Haley

A scientist tries to figure out how she can change her MoD result – Global Thermonuclear War.
I’m not sure I got all of this story – there’s a lot of statistics and math there and I just don’t know enough about that to grasp all the implications in the story. That left it feeling a little… impact-less.
The illustration was brilliant, though.

2 thoughts on “Machine of Death (Ed. by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo and David Malki!)

  1. Just started reading this and I agree with you re: vastly varying quality. The stories with an unobvious sense of humor tend to sit better with me (liking “Fudge,” with its great lampooning of love-drunk cheesiness) but some just dive right into telegraphed cliche (like the one I just finished, by William Grallo, which is hideously hokey right down to Tacky Randomly Capitalized Phrases A Twilight Reader Might Find Clever and cheesy uptight whining about ebonics/slang). It’s a bit jarring to read it all in sequence. Quality control notwithstanding it’s quite fun.

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