This anthology was part of the recent Humble eBook Bundle release. I purchased the bundle because I wanted “The Last Unicorn” by Peter S. Beagle, and the Wil Wheaton book. This “Machine of Death” book was one of the extras that came with the whole deal.
I love the business model of these media bundles. You can pay a ‘choose-your-own-price’ amount and get the basic collection, or you can pay at or above the average going rate and get bonus content too. If you pay for this deluxe version, you’ll automatically get any new titles they add before the bundle closes. All the books are DRM-free (yay!) and can be downloaded in the format of your choosing.
The anthology features a collection of stories by various authors, all based around the same premise: A machine exists that can tell you the cause of your death. It offers no details as to time, place, or specifics—just the cause. It’s always right, but sometimes in an ironic way: Death by ‘old age,’ for example could refer to you actually living to an old age and dying of natural causes, or it could refer to you being shot dead by a really old person.
The characters in the stories, all by different authors, respond very differently to the foreknowledge of their deaths. In one story, a cultish hippie subculture aura taints those who choose not to find out. In another story, the legal aspects of such foreknowledge play a role. Can your employer compel you to share your eventual cause of death? Can they terminate your employment if you’ll die by a means that might cost them productivity or health insurance premiums?
Other stories explore the interpersonal ramifications of the machine and its predictions. One character lives in a high school world were one’s social standing is stratified by the nature of the death the machine predicts, with those who die by thrill-seeking means at the top of the pecking order. In another piece, a man makes peace with his humdrum life by comforting himself with the knowledge that at least one exciting thing—the death the machine predicted for him—is fated to happen to him.
The problem with this sort of anthology is that the quality of the stories can vary tremendously. Some of the stories were quite excellent. But others were predictable or cliched or failed to offer a payoff. That’s a shame when, to my mind, the core premise is so unique and interesting.
My two favorite stories were creative and compelling, but in different ways.
The first was written as a series of diary entries from the point of view of one of the machine’s technicians, and the second was a very well-done psychological tale about two soldiers who crash-land together and must overcome not only the elements, but their own paranoias as they try to avoid their ‘foretold’ deaths.
I’m going to give this a 3.5 out of 5. The great stories were very, very good, but the lesser ones were … lesser. So that brings down the average.
With that said, I am definitely planning on picking up the just-released sequel. The good ones are good enough to make it all worthwhile, and I like to support indie authors who put out decent, DRM-free stuff. So, read and enjoy! Just skim over the dull ones. There are enough gems in this collection to enjoy in their own right.
Buy “Machine of Death” for Kindle (USD $5.99)