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on October 30, 2010
My copy of Machine of Death arrived yesterday, and I couldn't put it down until the last story was read and the last illustration admired. Fortunately, this collection lives up to the promise of its premise (say that ten times fast), offering up 34 unique meditations on a modern, mechanical Oracle of Delphi. Some of them are very funny--"Cocaine and Painkillers" and "Prison Knife Fight" are standout examples, but by no means the only ones. Others are thought-provoking, or poignant, or simply odd. I can't say that every story spoke to me personally, but I can say that the anthology overall was immensely entertaining and well worth reading.

It's kind of amusing that a prominent, wealthy media "personality"--apparently peeved that a tiny bit of attention was diverted from his own book--derided this book as exemplifying a "Culture of Death." If said "personality" had bothered to actually read the book before commenting (something I learned to do in, oh, elementary school), he would have realized that these stories about life, not death. They examine the human condition: love, friendship, hope, doubt, the struggle to make the best of things the face of adversity. This is NOT a book about people who "go gentle into that good night," in the words of Dylan Thomas. It may be in small part about talking dinosaurs, however.
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on October 27, 2010
For a bunch of ragtag webcomic and/or other crazy Internet phenomena authors (HAH!), Ryan North, David Malki! and Matthew Bennardo know how to dig up some crazy good stories. Of course, that should actually be expected from people who create impressively humorous comics on a regular basis--the Internet, after all, probably has some of the harshest critics in the world, and so its creators--because Messrs. North, Malki, and Bennardo do indeed create--constantly step up their game.

Machine of Death is one such creation, and one that has actually burst from the seams of the Internet and leaped into the real world. At first glance, it looks like a bunch of science fiction stories--something few people would claim to legitimately enjoy. And yet these are science fiction stories for the layman--stories that tell of high school romance, of marital troubles, of, as one reviewer put it, existential dread. They're stories that deal splendidly with the idea of the Machine of Death--a tool that tells people just how they're going to die, if vaguely--and oftentimes go far beyond the known realms of what such a machine might entail. Whether it's with a dramatic or humorous look at the Machine of Death--and this book has got both, sometimes in the same story--Machine of Death's stories, however varied, manage to do what science fiction (or just fiction in general) so rarely can, which is immerse readers wholly into their worlds. Obviously, the plot twists inherent in the idea of Machine of Death mean that I'm unable to tell of any shining moments from the stories, especially considering the massive spoilers that even a few sentences would entail--but considering that the first forty pages are available online here ([...]), you can find out for yourself.

Above all, Machine of Death subverts its cheesy scifi title, and in fact does brilliantly what scifi is meant to do in the first place--reveal through a brand new world (so to speak) our inner troubles, societal woes, and other things we find totally uneasy to talk about in our own boring ol' planet. It's a return to form, and yet it takes place in a world whose values and concepts mirror our own. Just by adding one new element in an otherwise normal world, Machine of Death changes everything about it. It makes you think and makes you think well--and especially in this day and age, that's a great thing.
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on October 26, 2010
So, this is a fantastic book. I read some of the stories and they are all top-notch quality. Delightful.

However, one thing bothers me. As soon as I ordered the book, a note was passed through my door by an apparently invisible force. The note simply said, EXISTENTIAL DREAD. Now, I wasn't fazed at first. Except then I was, because I started to read more stories and the machine was right in each case.

I tried to rationalize it away but it gnawed and gnawed at me. I couldn't do anything about it. The machine was like God.

I hope you enjoy this product. 5 stars for accuracy. Goodbye.
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on May 22, 2013
I am about halfway through this book and it is starting to become a slough. I am enjoying most of the stories, but the central theme to them is all so specific they start to blend together.

The writers are (mostly) brilliant and I've enjoyed many of their works, but reading this book all in one go is really difficult. I think this book is best enjoyed a few stories at a time between other books. Otherwise, being hammered with the same narrow theme over and over can get very repetitive.
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on March 28, 2014
The premise is really interesting, and there is some good potential here. There are dozens of stories, which explore lots of different styles and themes. Yet almost all of the stories read as if they were the result of exercises in a writers workshop. Very few of the entries center around much of a plot -- character is emphasized over story, and many of the tales end right at a point when I was saying "And then what happened?" In reading the premise, I thought the stories would be more entertaining -- clever plot twists and ironic endings. I didn't get that out of many of the chapters.

One other thing to note, these stories are not all set in the same "world". They have the same premise -- a machine exists that can tell you how you will die -- but in some of the stories the world becomes a dystopia of religious oppression and in others the machines are novelties used at dinner parties. Lots of variety, but it is sometimes jarring when a story contradicts the one before.
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on June 3, 2011
The theme which is the backbone of this short story collection is a pretty fun idea. There is a machine that can tell the manner of an individual's death from a blood sample. The catch is, there is no date of death given...and the results can be extremely vague and unpredictable.

As an example:

Someone could get a result of 'Barracuda'...so they avoid bodies of water their whole life, only to be hit and killed by a Dodge Barracuda while walking down the street. (I made this example up...hence...no spoiler warning)

With the exception of a few of them, these stories are very well written and do a good job of exploring all different angles of this hypothetical situation.

I was pleasantly surprised that these authors didn't take a path akin to the Final Destination movies. In other words most of these stories focus not on the actual death taking place...but on how the characters live their lives knowing how they will die. This makes the book far more entertaining and valuable to read. It could have easily become trashy throw-away entertainment, but it avoids falling into that trap and at times even becomes a nice commentary on the human condition.

This is a fun read that will at times catch you off guard with sadness and humor. I highly recommend this collection.

4.25/5
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on July 17, 2014
There were some really great stories in this collection, and it can be quite enjoyable to go through and see the different ways the authors present the theme. My favorite stories I read so far are probably, "Torn Apart and Devoured by Lions" (I like to think this is how I would respond to this type of situation), "Almond" (which has a great meta structure and some really clever bits), "Vegetables" (which develops in a way I really wasn't expecting).

And... that's roughly where I stopped. My Kindle says I'm at page 185/439. For some reason, I completely lost interest at that point. True, there were some stories in there that I didn't particularly care for, But, I don't really think that's why I stopped reading. The central problem is, so many stories start to sound exactly the same. For example, too many of the stories start with the author explaining the MOD. It's so boring to keep reading this explanation when the last 10 stories had the same explanation. It's a little unfortunate, since it's not really the author's fault. The stories were mostly written to stand alone, so it makes sense that they would explain the concept. Furthermore, even though a certain idea or setting or something is really clever standing by itself, it isn't quite as interesting the 2nd and 3rd time another author uses the same idea (not to imply plagiarism or anything, just that in a constrained topic like this, it's inevitable to have this kind of overlap).

Are the stories good? For the most part, yes. Should you buy the book? If your a fan of the main guys' other work (ex., Dinosaur Comics, The Time Traveler's Pocket Guide, Wondermark) and want to support them, or there's a particular story that you're interested in reading, or if you really dig the concept, then I say yes. But, don't plan to just read straight through it - read a story now and then, mull over it a bit, read something else, forget about it - and only then pick it up again and read another story.
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on November 12, 2010
Obviously a mixed bag, being an anthology, but don't open straight to the stories by your favorite Internet-famous people. The stories by Randall Munroe (navel-gazing and not very well-written) and Ryan North (Clever, but so enamored of its own cleverness it became a trite expansion of the idea rather than an enjoyable story) are not nearly as good as those by many of the less well-known authors. Some of the ideas were a bit obvious, but the stories well-written, and other ideas were comically brilliant (I loved "Torn Apart by Lions"). Worth the cover price.
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on February 3, 2012
Based on an idea proposed by that dinosaur comic (that there is a machine that, like the Oracle at Delphi, will cryptically and enigmatically tell you how you will die, vaguely), this is a brilliant collection of short stories that approach such a basic idea from every possible angle. And, in doing so, explores the very nature of mortality, humanity, destiny, tragedy, triumph, love, joy, hatred, fear, and ecstasy. I don't think I've ever read such a strong collection of stories, nor one that was so very thought-provoking on so many levels.

The big question, of course, is, would you use the Machine of Death? Logically, as a literature major, I know that it is never a good idea to know the future, much less how you die. It always ends badly. On the other hand, how could you possibly, as a human being, restrain yourself from obtaining that kind of information? To be human is to open Pandora's Box, to climb Mount Everest, to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. The maddening thing is that, even as such information could totally ruin the rest of our life, it could very possibly be the best thing to happen to our life. It could be as freeing as it could be constricting. It could cripple us with fear, or release us completely from it.

Even worse, could the knowledge of how we die, like with every Greek hero ever, cause that death? In running from fate, would we run right into it? Would this be self-fulfilling prophecy? Would we be like Sleeping Beauty, in being protected from the spinning wheel, run to prick our fingers on it?

Would the very existence of the Machine, the very ability to have this knowledge ruin life, mortality, and death?

If you were the one to invent the Machine, could you release it on the world? Would you feel responsible for the outcome? For the deaths? Would you be a savior, or a monster?

Would knowing affect everything? Is this a question of fate and destiny, or of human psychology, the self-fulfilling prophecy? Do we fight against the dying of the light or do we accept fate and die with a whimper?

Furthermore, is the Machine accurate? If it spits out "JOY" or "SUICIDE" or "ALMOND", is the truth in the fate what the Machine meant, or does the human psyche make it so?

Then we get into the meta part of this. Isn't modern medical technology essentially Machines of Death? Do we have any ability to try to face or change fate? Can we?

Moreover (and here we get literary), does the manner in which we die reflect the way we live? Does the end of our story reflect the beginning and middle? Is our death, the end of our story, random or determined? Is it a reflection of who we are as people? Does our manner of death reflect our manner of life?

Furthermore, could humanity ever possibly live with such divine (or meta) knowledge as the ending of our own stories? Would it save our lives or destroy them? Make us worse or make us better? Could humanity ever cope with certitude? Is hope a curse or a blessing? Can humans ever be human without hope? Would we ever strive to know or fight or do without hope?

If we (both as a human character in this alternative world and as the reader of these stories) know the ending of the story (the death), how does it affect the reader, the writer, the characters? Oh, hell, do I love that double layer!

Because, death gives life. Death affects life.

My favorite stories: Suicide by David Michael Wharton, Almond by John Chernega, Starvation by M. Bennardo, Killed By Daniel by Julia Wainwright, Cocaine and Painkillers by Daivd Malki!, Loss of Blood by Jeff Stautz, and Miscarriage by James L. Sutter.

This collection is highly addicting, incredibly absorbing, comprehensive, clever, imaginative, thought-provoking, and utterly brilliant. Grade: A+
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on October 19, 2015
The story of how this book was written is almost as good as the book itself, read the prolog you won't regret it. As with all anthologies some stories are better than others but overall it is a great collection of stories around an idea that really makes you think.
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