Do you want to know how you will die? What if the agent of prophecy wasn’t entirely clear about the method of your demise and didn’t tell you when you would die? How might society as a whole change if the predictor of death was a readily available machine that needed only a droplet of blood to make its prediction? How would your own life change if you knew you were going to die by drowning, or from cancer? Start smoking? Stop using sunscreen?
Now throw in the fact that the book in question is a collection of short-short stories, written by authors from a variety of backgrounds and countries, who treat the premise in a manner ranging from sardonic to heartbreaking. Well, I can tell you it doesn’t make the book very easy to review. Machine of Death was put together from submissions based on the simple premise of “a machine that accurately, though vaguely, predicts death”.
There are a couple of twists to the premise underlying the stories collected herein.
One complication is that the machine does not tell the majority of people when they will die, which is in some ways more useful (or upsetting) than knowing how one will die. Is it worth quitting smoking or avoiding swimming if you’re going to die of cancer or drowning? Possibly, as the machine wouldn’t say which kind or in what circumstance.
Another quirk is that the predictions are accurate but open to interpretation. The machine is always right, though as with the classic prophetic agents, the Machine of Death’s predictions are not only short but vague: does cancer mean you’ll die of cancer or you’ll be killed by someone born under the sign of Cancer? For example, one of the creators got a slip which read “Water”, and assumed it meant drowning…but he died in a plane crash which resulted from water in the aircraft’s fuel feed line. Another of the characters’ death is predicted as “smothering” so the child’s parents keep him away from pillows and items small enough to present a choking hazard only to find, when the child is four, that he is deathly allergic to peanuts…and he dies from anaphylactic shock closing his throat.
The contributors had freedom within that parameter to determine the plot, location, characters and death. Some of the predictions are poetically unclear–“not waving but drowning”–while some are seemingly improbable or embarassing–the death predicted in one story is “torn apart and devoured by lions” for a man who lives in the United States, while another is “exhaustion from having sex with a minor” for a man running for Parliament. Most are more straightforward plausible causes of death, and the authors concentrate on the personal reactions of the recipients and societal changes resulting from a cheap, quick, readily available method of determining one’s cause of death.
It’s an interesting collection, probably best for people who like science fiction, but interesting for anyone who likes thought experiments. I cannot, alas, think of anything with which to compare this, though given the range of talents amongst the contributors, there’ll be something in their other written works to interest readers.