You Should Read: MACHINE OF DEATH, ed. by North, Bennardo & Malki !

The machine had been invented a few years ago: a machine that could tell, from just a sample of your blood, how you were going to die. It didn’t give you the date and it didn’t give you specifics. It just spat out a sliver of paper upon which were printed, in careful block letters, the words DROWNED or CANCER or OLD AGE or CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN. It let people know how they were going to die.

The problem with the machine is that nobody really knew how it worked, which wouldn’t actually have been that much of a problem if the machine worked as well as we wished it would. But the machine was frustratingly vague in its predictions: dark, and seemingly delighting in the ambiguities of language. OLD AGE, it had already turned out, could mean either dying of natural causes, or shot by a bedridden man in a botched home invasion. The machine captured that old-world sense of irony in death — you can know how it’s going to happen, but you’ll still be surprised when it does. (More at http://machineofdeath.net/about)

I picked up a copy of MACHINE OF DEATH about a month ago, in a bookstore which was closing (but now, isn’t) in another state while wandering around my favorite small town. “I’ve heard good things about that,” the man I was with said to me, looking down at the antholgy. I picked it up, trusting his judgement about books. It was thick and had a lot of names on the back and was edited by a couple of guys I was certain I’d never heard of, but a dystopian collection of short fiction about a machine which ironically predicts the exact manner of your death? I was sure I’d love it.

Turns out I was only right about one of those things.

MACHINE OF DEATH was at least 1/3 edited by Ryan North, based on an idea he’d put into one of his comics a while back. While I couldn’t place the name of the guy, the name of the strip was DINOSAUR COMICS and upon realizing that I did a happy little dance. I love T-Rex and Utahraptor and Dromiceiomimus! and follow them on Twitter and I even tolerate the regular appearance of GOD, who in this comic is usually high anyway. (What, no one else thinks that? It’s just me? Hmm.) I belatedly remembered the strip in which the idea appeared, where T-Rex decides he’ll eventually write a story on the idea that a machine can predict your death, which in the case of cows just means there were a lot of prediction cards which read MADE INTO DELICIOUS CHEESEBURGERS.

It could have stayed a joke. It could have, even after submissions started rolling in and the idea became an anthology, stayed funny, and maybe even veered into ridiculous.

It didn’t.

MACHINE OF DEATH is, when you get down to it, pretty brilliant. There are a few funny stories and a few silly ones and a few which take an alt-history view of the world but for the most part this is our Earth and our frail and brittle humans and a machine which does only one thing but does it perfectly. What do you do then, when you know how you’ll die? When everyone everywhere knows how, but almost never when they’ll shuffle off this mortal coil (and to be honest those perfectly right predictions are vague in a sort of unhelpful way)? Whether the characters hide, plead, bargain, grieve, and refuse to live what time they have left, or use it as a way to live recklessly by indulging in every whim except the one attached to their prediction slip, the stories in this collection show you something worth thinking about.

What if you knew? What would you change about the life you’re living right now?

In a way, I think that’s the best part of this anthology. It acts as its own memento mori, holding up its artifice and saying, “Remember your death – it’s coming,” but by shrouding it in fun and whimsy, you get to feel safe about it. It’s almost like getting bad news while being wrapped up in comfy blankets, snuggled with your favorite person/pet/stuffed animal, while cookies bake in the oven, and knowing that if you don’t like the news, you can always put it back on the shelf and look at it again later when you’re ready. We all die, kids, most of us faster than we’d have liked, and it’s refreshing to be reminded of it every so often. It could be CANCER or LOSS OF BLOOD or a CRASH of some kind or even something interesting like MURDER or EXHAUSTION FROM HAVING SEX WITH A MINOR but one way or another, we all go. No matter who you are, there’s a death in there for you, and a story which will make you consider your own choices.

And if you’re not up for that, there’s always FLAMING MARSHMALLOW.

You Should Read: THE BEST SHORT STORIES OF J. G. BALLARD

First published in 1978, this collection of nineteen of Ballard’s best short stories is as timely and informed as ever. His tales of the human psyche and its relationship to nature and technology, as viewed through a strong microscope, were eerily prescient and now provide greater perspective on our computer-dominated culture. Ballard’s voice and vision have long served as a font of inspiration for today’s cyber-punks, the authors and futurist who brought the information age into the mainstream. (Amazon)

I think I’m going to let my friends tell me what to read for a while longer. Fresh off finishing Ted Chiang’s amazing collection, the same friend who recommended that book also gave me this one. Next up on the review list is John Joseph Adam’s Brave New Worlds, suggested to me by a different friend. My advice to you: if you want to read great books, befriend readers.

J.G. Ballard is one of those authors I can’t believe I didn’t know about. What he writes fits so perfectly with the kind of hard-science, dystopian, speculative fiction I’ve loved from writers like Clarke and Asimov and Niven. Taken as a group, it’s clear to see the guy was worried about overpopulation, unchecked capitalism, and government control, but his forays into the science of sleep make for some interesting fiction as well.

“The Concentration City” starts the collection off with a great story about a possible future where space – up, down, left, right – is valued at a price per foot, and the city itself is a huge mass of buildings clustered together. Ballard’s male protagonist (and they’re always men, it should be noted) is one of the forward-thinking types he favors, and this fellow has the idea to ride the train out of the city, just to see how far he can get. The story is meant to make us think about space, government, inbred agoraphobia, and mob mentality, and it does all of those things well. This might be my favorite story except for the existential twist Ballard throws in at the end, which in my opinion he didn’t need to do at all. It turns the tale from a brilliant look at the mentality of an overgrown city-state into a “oh, look, it’s spooky!’ morality play. Didn’t care for it.

“Manhole 69” looks at what happens to men who no longer need sleep. Again we’ve got Ballard looking at science as a way to explore psychology, and I like what he does here, though I felt the end was a bit rushed. We could have used a few more pages about the subjects’ descent into madness, instead of “oh, look, it’s scary!” But unlike “Concentration City” the twist at the end of “Manhole” actually makes perfect sense, if thrown in earlier than feels comfortable.

“Chronopolis” I loved. Ballard’s future city here is one that saw the rise of the government culture, fed on organization and efficiency, and rebelled against it. The protag’s rebellion then isn’t against the oppressive regime but against the unorganized society which arouse from those that had overthrown the past. In Newman we get a kid who’s seen the future and the past both, and makes it his life’s work to get back to a kind of interwoven lifestyle he feels we should never have left.

“The Voices of Time” was about the science, for me. The interpersonal moments, of which there are more than usual, seem to be there to support the science. The core idea is that when the world is ending, we’ll sleep more before we die. This takes us back to “Manhole 69” in a way, Ballard playing with the idea of sleep, and of the two stories I prefer “Voices”. It may be the difference in the way that “Manhole” internalizes the actions of the main characters and “Voices” allows them to be affected by external forces.

“Deep End” wasn’t as moving for me. Perhaps it’s that the moral of the story – stupid boys ruin everything because mankind is inherently destructive – is one I’m all too familiar with. It’s a dystopian staple to have the enlightened main character be hurt at the end because other humans just don’t “get it”. Ballard does it, everyone does it. Before you point out that this collection is 30 years old, yes, I do acknowledge that, but this particular idea was old even in the 70s.

“The Overloaded Man” is a lot of fun, if you enjoy darkness and not being able to tell if the main character’s discovered a super power or has gone insane. Personally I prefer to think of it a la Twilight Zone, and imagine that Faulkner has found the ability to destabilize form from function into idea. One of my favorites.

“Billenium” reminds us that we are our programming. It was so sad for me to see that at the end, Ward succumbs to the idea that it’s better to live in a closet than to have room enough to breath. He doesn’t rebel, he doesn’t struggle against the system, he just quietly lets it roll over him. The character’s actions made perfect sense, given his society, but personally I’d have loved for him to have his secret room and to have been the one person who understood freedom.

“The Garden of Time” is boring. There, I said it. It feels more like a writing exercise than a story. What are we supposed to be emotionally invested in?

“Thirteen for Centaurus” is another one of Ballards thought experiments. He takes a psychological problem and explores the minds of the subjects who’re part of the testing process. It reminds me of “Manhole 69” though they’re set in completely different facilities. Again, Ballard feels the need to do the “shocker” twist ending, which neither feels twisty or shocking, but sort of a reasonable ending given the story. (You can tell it’s meant to be shocking because it’s in italics!)

“The Subliminal Man” takes the theme of unchecked capitalism and agressive government thought control and nails it. It’s pitch-perfect, start to end.

“The Cage of Sand” – This story felt longer, as if Ballard had more time to let the story unfold naturally, even though it’s about the same size as several of the other tales. I think it much more effectively explored the dying world theme than “Deep End”.

“End Game” – By this point I was a little tired of Ballard telling me how fascinating his own ideas were, but if you can ignore that, it’s a exploration of a mental game to see how long it takes a prisoner to break.

“The Drowned Giant” – Ballard does his best work when he’s dealing with external factors – government, science, mutated creatures …. It’s also an fascinating look at a story written entirely in exposition, as there’s no dialogue in it anywhere.

“The Terminal Beach” is one of only two stories in the book to be written as a set of notes, broken up into tiny sections, complete with headers in bold type. I enjoyed the change in style.

“The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” Ballard takes his characters off the ground and into the sky and the result is beautiful. One of my favorite stories, and one of the few that actually ends on a basically happy note.

“The Assassination of John Fitzegeral Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” tell you, right there in the title, exactly how irreverant and darkly humorous this flash fiction piece is going to be. Also, the story’s not much longer than the title.

“The Atrocity Exhibition” is the other index-card style story, and I think it’s more successful than “Beach” because the subject matter is more interesting. There’s a small mystery unfolding in this tale, in segmented pieces and without all the facts. “Atrocity” is an excellent choice to end the collection.

While I didn’t absolutely adore every single piece of every single story, the overall collection is amazing and shouldn’t be missed. I know so much more about writing than I did before I started the book. Taken as a group of stories, it’s easy to see why Ballard is as oft-recommended as he is. If you haven’t read him, you should.

ISBN 0-312-278446, PICADOR