Uncertain Certainty

Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki. Machines of Death, 2010. 9780982167120.

This Is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki. Grand Central Publishing, 2013. 9781455529391.

Sarah: You may have already heard of this: Machine of Death!
Gene: Oh, I have heard of that.
S: I really liked it. It’s the first of two volumes, I realized I don’t have the second volume because I gave it to my brother for Christmas. But I have read both books. So! This is a premise that originated in a Dinosaur Comics strip, and it’s in the book. The idea is that there is a machine that is able to tell you, with a simple blood test, how you’re going to die. It will sometimes be obscure and sometimes it won’t be totally clear how that would cause your death, and no matter what you do you can’t change the fact that that is your destiny. Sometimes it’ll happen despite your efforts in a weird Twilight Zone twist. The book is an anthology by a bunch of different people all using that premise. It’s like the most wonderful anthology show, like if you got a Twilight Zone series where every episode was on one premise but interpreted radically differently by different artists. I would LOVE to see that.
G: It has a sci-fi feel?
S: Yes. But the genres are really different. Some of them are funny, or sad, or sweet. There was one story, I can’t remember which volume it was from, where the Machine of Death prediction is being used prenatally. So there’s a wonderful moment where a couple who have had multiple miscarriages get a prediction that says something like heart disease. And they’re so happy because this means they’re going to have a baby!
G: That’s very strange.
S: Yeah, I love it. I think you can find lots of stories people wrote that didn’t end up in the anthologies. People have made short films.
G: And there’s a card game, right?
S: Yeah. I really like this anthology. I enjoy Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Dimension 404, I haven’t watched Black Mirror yet, but this fits in with those.
G: I recognize a few names from this. Scott C did some illustrations, and there are a lot of webcomics people involved with this. They brought a lot of their readers to this project and made it a huge success. Was it on Kickstarter?
S: Yeah. The editors, Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki, were the main drivers behind it.
G: Ryan North is Dinosaur Comics and David Malki is Wondermark.
S: Yeah. I bought some merch from this, too — I got a sew-on patch with the Machine of Death logo, I’ve got a poster that is what a Soviet propaganda poster would look like if they had the Machine of Death. For them it would be about how all the workers are equal in that they all know how they’re going to die. There’s a farmer and a soldier and a factory worker all holding up their prediction cards. I forgot to say, the Machine of Death always gives you its prediction on a little card.
G: Like all good fortune-tellers. I’m going to digress for a second. Last month YA author Lani Sarem was shat upon all over the web for “gaming” the New York Times bestseller list. She denied the charge, but basically it sounds like she and others called bookstores and ask if they report their sales to the New York Times. Then they would say I need this many books ordered on this day. The story that the author told, maybe true, was that these books were all for signing events. But there were 15 thousand, 18 thousand books ordered, nationwide, to get on the bestseller list. Which is a strange number because you don’t need that many to get on the top ten for the week, but they were all placed on a certain day. The New York Times ended up not putting it on the list. She was accused of gaming the system. She is one of those YA authors who ends up at ComiCon and SF conventions, and everyone was pissed at her. One of our reviewers asked me what I thought of it and I said the New York Times bestseller list IS a game.
S: Oh, yeah.
G: And the fact that she tried to play it is fine with me. I don’t think a spot on the list means what you think it means. It doesn’t mean those are the best books.
S: Not at all.
G: It means those are the books that had marketing people behind them or the author is well known enough to sell in supermarkets. But I bring that up because the Machine of Death folks gamed the system, too.
S: They did, yeah. They gamed the Amazon bestseller list.
G: They had all their fans, fans of all the authors in the book, buy the book on Amazon on the same day. It went to number one.
S: And some weird conservative commentator who got beat out talked angrily on their show about this terrible book that glorified death.
G: Oh (looking at book), I didn’t realize the book was released under Creative Commons!
S: Yeah, so that was the other thing I liked, because people could adapt the stories because of the Creative Commons license, they had a free podcast audiobook, with a new story every week. The recordings were wonderful.

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