Machine of Death is a crowd sourced collection of short stories that share a single premise. There exists a device which by means of a simple finger prick blood test can accurately predict how you will die. It doesn't say when it will happen, just how, and often the message is cryptic or open to interpretation. If you could find out how you will die, would you want to know? How would knowing the manner of your death change your life? Would expecting a violent death make you more cautious, or would the knowledge free you from being afraid of all the other potentially deadly things you now knew wouldn't kill you? What would happen to medicine and the insurance industry? The authors of this book come up with all manner of answers to these and many other questions in this incredibly diverse anthology.
Each story's title is the message somebody got from the machine of death. It may not necessarily be how the main character will die, and it may or may not happen in the story. Even if it does happen it may not be the way you expect. This allows the authors to play with the reader, inviting you to guess how the title will relate to the story.
You might expect a collection of stories focused on death to be depressing, but it's not. At least, not for the most part. The stories range from the morose to the absurd. The Escapist Magazine's computer game reviewer Yahtzee Croshaw's contribution Exhaustion From Having Sex With A Minor is hilarious. So is Flaming Marshmallow, by Camille Alexa, in which high school kids' social status is determined by how they will die, with the cool kids being the "crashers" and "burners". Despair, by K. M. Laurence is as grim as it sounds. Strangely, the most uplifting and beautiful story in the collection is Prison Knife Fight by Shaenon K. Garrity, about a guy who lives his whole life with the stigma of knowing he will one day die in prison who finds a kind of freedom in his situation. It's like something Solzhenitsyn might have written.
In all of the stories society has been transformed one way or another by the existence of the Machine of Death. In some it has become a frightening dystopia. In others it is more or less business as usual. I enjoyed the diversity of the stories and the way the authors have clearly thought through the various possible consequences it can have. The characters try to cheat their fates but often end up causing the very thing they were trying to avoid. It makes you wonder whether it would be better to know what's coming so you can plan for it, or whether we are really lucky that we don't know. Several stories feature parents having to deal with knowing how their own children will one day die, which denies them the luxury most of us have of pushing thoughts of our loved ones deaths out of our minds. It's certainly a book that gets you thinking about the big questions.
The stories in Machine of Death are available from the M.O.D website as a free audiobook podcast. Some of the stories are read by their authors and some by other readers but all are terrific. The book itself is available as a free PDF or for sale in trade paperback format for US$15, or in the new, cheaper "disposable" version for just US$8.00. If you get the print or PDF version you can also enjoy the illustrations, which were also crowd sourced and produced by a number of different artists. The book has been so successful that a sequel, This Is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death, is due for release in July 2013.
Machine of Death is well worth a read. Reat it in order or dip into it at random, or pick whichever title intrigues you first. You're bound to find something to like.