Machine of Death
A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die
Edited by
Ryan North
Matthew Bennardo
David Malki
Bearstache Books, 2010

Imagine that there was a machine that would tell you how you would die -- not when or where, and only in very broad terms; fire, boat, aneurysm, fudge. But imagine that despite often being very, very cryptic, it is 100% accurate. And that it is affordable, and takes less than five minutes to get a result. And was available at your local mall. Now, imagine it 33 more times. And imagine each of these were illustrated by a different illustrator.

That's Machine of Death. It's a collection of stories about how people die -- and how they react to knowing this -- and how society reacts. The collection was inspired by one of Ryan North's Dinosaur Comics (this one), and yes, it is included on the frontispiece of the book.

The collection is fairly diverse, particularly considering the very limited subject matter, and mostly includes stories by new and little-known authors. As you might expect, there is a lot of angst, ennui, and self-fulfilling prophecies, but this is balanced by a good number of clever and well-written stories that develop the machine's back story, find interesting characters, and/or have interesting twists. There is the mandatory short-short story (12 words, including the title), the screwball dark comedy, the crime noir, the transhumanism piece... 34 stories give room for a lot of variation.

On the flip side, the illustrations are a bit of a disappointment. They are mostly by cartoonists (not that that's always a bad thing), and most are fairly mundane (also, not always a bad thing). They tend to be of the "nice picture to find in the middle of a book" quality rather than showcase or cover art quality. This would be okay in a novel, but as there is only one illustration per story, no illustrator manages to make much of an impression. Notable illustrators include Ramón Pérez (best known for Tale Of Sand), Jeffrey Brown (Clumsy, Unlikely), and Christopher Hastings (The Adventures of Dr. McNinja).

The editors accepted submissions from anyone and everyone, and after receiving over 700 entries, they selected their favorite, and Bob's your uncle. Well, it wasn't quite that easy. Because the editors couldn't find a publisher interested in releasing this sort of collection they self-published in November 2010 -- three years after the project started. Shortly after publication the editors announced "MOD-Day", and encouraged readers to purchase the book en masse on October 26 in an effort to reach the top of the bestseller list; this was successful, resulting in a good amount of press that boosted MOD into a fairly well-known position in the SF world.

They have recently released the anthology under a Creative Commons Licence (specifically Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No-Derivatives -- Share Alike 3.0 license), and the entire book is available as a free download in .pdf format or as a podcast (here). There are a number of readings, theatrical interpretations, and related fan art based on the book, much of which is available at the book's website.

There is now a second volume entitled This is How You Die, which continues the project. To the best of my knowledge, there is no third book in the works. The editors are currently working on Machine of Death: The Game of Creative Assassination, a party game described more fully here.

Further reading:

  • MoD's website
  • The original story guideline, and what happened with it.
  • MOD Flash Fan Fic Contest Winners
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