Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Book Review: Machine of Death Edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennarto and David Malki

I've got quite a back log of reviews building up - especially of books I read a while past or ones for pleasure (where there's no immediacy to publishing it).  So I finished this a few months ago.  Due to its length, it took a while to read (about a year, on various commutes, between novels).

I'll be posting reviews on Thursdays to help get rid of the back log.

Pros: interesting premise, wide variety of stories, varied interpretations of the theme

Cons: the first few stories plus and introduction and comic all explain the machines, which gets a bit tedious; several of the stories ignore the fact that there can be multiple interpretations to the predictions; towards the end of the collection the variety of story possibilities becomes exhausted and the stories become less interesting because of it; the stories vary in quality from fantastic to confusing

This was an interesting collection of stories, with a mix of qualities.  Some were brilliant and others unexceptional to bad.  The premise was fascinating though the number of stories that spent time explaining what the premise was grated after a while, since, as a reader, I knew the premise.  The stories were obviously not planned as a continuum since they contradicted each other, though that's not necessarily a bad thing as it allowed for a more varried interpretation of the theme.

I suspect my fatigue with the theme, more than the quality of the stories, led to lower star ratings the closer I got to the end.  The collection is 439 pages and consists of 34 stories, each preceeded by an illustration.  So you're definitely getting your money's worth.  And there were enough good to great stories here to make it worth the purchase.

Because it's easier than my other methods of grading stories, I decided to give each story a rating out of 5 stars.

**** "Flaming Marshmallow" by Camille Alexa - How you'll die is now the basis of high school cliques. Caroline is finally turning 16 and able to learn where she'll fit in.

This story takes a teenage viewpoint of learning how you'll die.  There's excitement as well as apprehension.  Similarly, the idea of where you'll sit and who your friends are as determined by the machine is a reasonable extrapolation of the importance of the Machine of Death.

*** "Fudge" by Kit Yona - A man contemplates if he wants to know his manner of death while waiting at the mall for his fiancee.  

A highly introspective story questioning whether it's worth knowing your manner of death and how the knowledge may change how you live your life.

** "Torn Apart and Devoured by Lions" by Jeffrey Wells - An insurance salesman regales customers with how he's going to be killed by lions.  He begins living his life in anticipation of the most exciting event in it - his death.  

Certainly a different outlook on how people react to the knowledge on the death cards.  Sort of an odd story.

***** "Despair" by K. M. Lawrence - A doctor must deal with the unusual cause of death card by her first patient of the night.

A look at how hospitals would have to opperate and how doctors would second guess their actions, based on the information on patients' cards.

**** "Suicide" David Michael Wharton - A man tries to prove the death cards wrong.

A very interesting story about fate and whether you can change yours.

***** "Almond" by John Chernega - The first death machine opperator writes a diary of his experiences, first when no one's interested in the machine up to when officials start requiring mandetory testing.

A chilling look at how corporations and governments could use the information on death cards to control and descriminate against people.

**** "Starvation" by M. Bennardo - Two soldiers survive a helicopter crash in a jungle in enemy territory and try to survive despite their death predictions.

A very tense story.  Like the protagonist, you think you know how this is going to end.

*** "Cancer" by Camron Miller - Curiosity causes the people in this story get their results one by one, despite seeing how knowing their cause of death destroys the lives of those who got the knowledge before them.

This is a story about human nature.  Even when you know something's bad for you, it's hard to resist doing it.  

** "Firing Squad" by Jack Unrau - Two old friends meet unexpectedly and eat together.  One of them shares adventures he's been on.

Tense story but a let down ending.

** "Vegetables" by Chris Cox - A man 'helps' his co-worker deal with his prediction of death.

This is a story of how a psychopath could use the information contained in death cards to his own advantage.  While well written (especially the very creepy protagonist), the opening was disgusting and I would have stopped reading had I not been reviewing the collection.

*** "Piano" by Rafa Franco - A story about a man who's at first incapacitated and then liberated by his cause of death.

Interesting story about how knowing how you'll die (and therefore how you won't die) can be liberating.

*** "HIV Infection From Machine of Death Needle" by Brian Quinlan

A short but clever story.

*** "Exploded" by Tom Francis - How the two inventors of the machine deal with the infamy of their creation and the riches they earn.

I really enjoyed this story but the confusing ending brought down the star rating.

**** "Not Waving But Drowning" by Erin McKean - A girl explains test day at her school, the first day of grade 9, and the results she gets.

An interesting narrative with a lot of information about how individuals and families cope with their predictions.  Also notable for the humour.

*** "Improperly Prepared Blowfish" by Gord Sellar - Two yakuza bring their boss a requested machine of death.

Some interesting characters and a decent ending.

** "Love Ad Nauseum" by Sherri Jacobsen - A woman's later life as told through her wanted ads.

A neat concept that ends so abruptly I turned the page looking for the rest of the story only to realize that it was over.

* "Murder And Suicide, Respectively" by Ryan North - A play about two scientists discussing a scientific theory.

I didn't understand how their theory would work in practice and there was too much unnecessary dialogue.

*** "Cancer" by David Malki - James' father has cancer and doesn't like how his mother drags him first to an inpirational speaker and the to a faith healer.

Shows how some people deal with their impending death, in this case frustration and a desire to cheat it through supernatural means.

***** "Aneurysm" by Alexander Danner - Norma has an unusual party game planned for her get together, and Sid, her ex-husband, who hates party games, has a plan.

A fun, interestingly morbid story with a satisfying ending.

***** "Exhaustion From Having Sex With a Minor" by Ben 'Yahtzee' Croshaw - The Prime Ministerial race hinges on the death predictions of the two candidates, one of whom has no desire to share his shameful method of death.

The story messes with your assumptions with several good twists.

*** "After Many Years, Stops Breathing, While Asleep, With Smile On Face" by William Grallo - Ricky gets an awesome prediction of death but what he wants is another man's fiancee.  So when she invites him to 'Toe Tag Night' at a club, he says yes.

Interesting story, especially the tag night of seeing how people will die as a means of hooking up.  Open ending.

***** "Killed By Daniel" by Julia Wainwright - A man whose marriage broke up due to his wife's prediction of death gets his own and discovers his son is destined to kill him.

How do you live normally with a horrific prediction hanging over your head?  The protagonist, having seen his wife deteriorate tries to avoid the same fate.  Partly centers on a gay relationship.

**** "Friendly Fire" by Douglas J. Lane - Tommy's anti-machine of death activist group, whose recent attack on mall machines went exceptionally well, is taking things to the next level.

Shows the consequences of getting predictions becoming the reasong youth become activists against the machines.

**** "Nothing" by Pelotard - A young woman confronts her grandfather about his age and prediction of death.

This story delves into what it means in the book's world to have a different or special prediction.

*** "Cocaine and Painkillers" by David Malki - Kelly's first informercial is a hit so her boss puts her on a mystery project for a device that may be a portable drug test, though that doesn't add up to what's written on most of the white slips coming out of the prototype.

A story about the social implications of salesmen who lie to sell a product.  The focus of the story is more on her previous assignment and how she feels about the job than on the prototype she's to sell next.

***** "Loss of Blood" by Jeff Stantz - In a horrifying future where predictions of death land citizens in different classes, with lower classes working and living in slums far from the upperclass Garden, Kevin and his wife have just received their death date from the ministry.

This is a brilliantly creepy story with a truly gut-wrenching ending.

*** "Prison Knife Fight" by Shaenon K. Garrity - A rick kid's future is put into question as prestigous kindergardens refuse him due to his ignoble cause of death.

An interesting premise with a good set-up but the ending wasn't the best.

**** "While Trying To Save Another" by Daliso Chaponda - A group of people who are given a time as well as method of death comfort each other.  A new member has the same death date as a regular, bringing them a sudden, unexpected closeness.

I liked the added dimension of the time of death, complicating an already difficult situation.  The story also shows that people don't always use their time wisely, even when they know the end is coming.

*** "Miscarriage" by James L. Sutter - A couple who have miscarried in the past have the fetus of their new pregnancy tested.

It explores the interesting idea of how testing for the cause of death can bring hope.

*** "Shot by Sniper" by Bartholomew von Klick - Nato troops in the middle east get pinned down by a sniper and the squad's knowledge of their commanding officer's cause of death paralizes them.

This is another story that subverts expectation with some minor character development.

**** "Heat Death of the Universe" by James Foreman - A smart teen ponders Stephen Hawking's writings on order vs chaos as he examines the results of his, and his girlfriend's, MOD readings and the reaction hers causes.

Smart story with an interesting message.

* "Drowning" by C. E. Guimont - Character who reads dreams for a living finds his world changing and his union benefits are scaled back as the machine of death is introduced to society.

Kind of a pointless story which I didn't really understand.  The guy's job is bizarre to say the least, and the machine is only tangenitally mentioned.  I also didn't understand why the machine's predictions would affect a union or this guy's dream reading.

* "?" by Randall Munroe - An angry young many thinks questions to the universe while lighting forest fires.

I can understand wanting answers and not liking how the machine's predictions are true, but I can't understand how lighting fires and burning down forests helps him or anyone else.

** "Cassandra" by T. J. Radcliffe - A woman working in the Insurance industry tries to understand why the technology of the Delphic Device failed at allowing predictions of death to be changed in an attempt to change her own.

The story has one bizarre contradiction.  It starts with a quote from the 1983 movie War Games, but the protagonist later doesn't know what a 'film' is.  I suppose the word film could go out of use in time, but it's still odd for her to know about the 80s and not know that term.  The Ignorance Theorem didn't make any sense to me, but I'm not the best with science.  It sounded like a philosophical problem I read once (Plato?), where if A=B and B=C than A=C, even if you know it doesn't. 

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