Of all the titles in that Humble Bundle, Machine of Death was probably the one with the most morbidly intriguing title and premise. But it was an anthology of short stories, which can be anywhere on the spectrum of quality due to the sheer number of writers contributing. But there’s only so long that someone can resist a premise like that.
Machine of Death is an anthology of short stories centred around the idea that there is a machine that can predict the means of your death. Not the date or any other context, just the means by which your life will end. Sometimes the machine is straightforward. Sometimes the machine can be almost perversely ironic in its predictions: for example, a man presented with a slip stating OLD AGE may be just as likely to die as the result of being run over by a pensioner who can’t see over the wheel as he is of passing peacefully in his sleep. Sometimes the machine is just incomprehensible, spitting out slips reading ALMOND or FLAMING MARSHMALLOW. Machine of Death collects a variety of stories that explore the various reactions to knowing in a roundabout way how you are going to die.
I’m actually quite impressed at the overall quality of the work on display here, considering that it collects the efforts of several different writers, and generally people who are more known for their work with internet reviews and comics. For instance, I wasn’t aware that Randall Monroe from xkcd wrote fiction, and while I love his work on that comic I wasn’t sure how that would translate to a more traditional work of fiction. And while there are a couple of stories that, while not necessarily complete duds, could have done with a bit more polishing, there wasn’t really anything that stood out as ruining my reading experience. Probably the thing that bothered me most was that there are a few stories that focus on the creation and spread of the Machine of Death, and none of those quite meshed together. It’s a fairly minor issue considering, but it did niggle a bit for me.
Perhaps a bit of a morbid recommendation, but Machine of Death is a surprisingly thoughtful look at what the human race does with the knowledge of their own demise, with reactions ranging from relief to outright paranoia. Maybe not for those who are after a bit of light fiction, but definitely a book that I can recommend to those willing to suspend their disbelief. 4/5
Next review: The Poison Eaters and Other Stories by Holly Black