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

 

You Should Read: Ted Chiang’s STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS

Ted Chiang (born 1967) is an American speculative fiction writer. He was born in Port Jefferson, New York and graduated from Brown University with a Computer Science degree. He currently works as a technical writer in the software industry and resides in Bellevue, near Seattle, Washington. He is a graduate of the noted Clarion Writers Workshop (1989).

Although not a prolific author, having published only twelve short stories as of 2010, Chiang has to date won a string of prestigious speculative fiction awards for his works: a Nebula Award for “Tower of Babylon” (1990), the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1992, a Nebula Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for “Story of Your Life” (1998), a Sidewise Award for “Seventy-Two Letters” (2000), a Nebula Award, Locus Award and Hugo Award for his novelette”Hell Is the Absence of God” (2002), a Nebula and Hugo Award for his novelette “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” (2007), and a British Science Fiction Association Award, a Locus Award, and the Hugo Award for Best Short Story for “Exhalation” (2009). (From Wikipedia)

I was sick for five weeks, down with a bronchial infection that my work schedule wouldn’t let heal. I would get up, go to work, come home and pass out again, over and over, until it finally passed. I wasn’t reading, and certainly wasn’t up to coherently reviewing anything.

When I did recover I started reading Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others. I didn’t used to enjoy short stories, and up until about a year ago I only owned one anthology. Recently I’ve started reading flash fiction, micro-fiction, and more traditional-length short stories, finding the craft in carefully constructed worlds designed to blossom, burn bright, and die within 4,000 words or so. A short story has to be meticulously worded to fit the maximun amount of meaning into the smallest space. Often the best ones tell a second story in the empty spaces, adding to the original tale by the implication of what they left out.

Having read Chiang’s collection, I come close to accepting why he publishes so little and so rarely. His stories are crisp and pure, releasing words the way a melting icicle gives up its essence, drip by drip. There’s nothing tacked on unecessarily, and at the end of each story I was left with the peaceful sense that each tale ended exactly as it shoud have. On the other had, this is the longest it’s ever taken me to finish a book of any length, because I found I couldn’t read more than one story at a time. I would finish one, then need to push it away from me, come up for air. A week would go by, maybe more, before I felt ready to open the book and let myself be engulfed by Chiang’s words again.

My thoughts on the collection as a whole mirror much of what’s already been said about Chiang, so I’ll focus on the stories that stood out to me:

“Tower of Babylon”: From the very first story in the collection, Chiang shows his abilty to thoroughly embody his chaaracters, to know how they move, how they work, how a piece of stone feels under their fingers. He sees the sun in the sky as his characters do, feels the wind blowing, and by knowing these things he can put into words the simplest explanations of how that world works. The stone masons and metal workers who travel to the Tower, construct of legend, suffer mental and physical side effects from existing at ever-increasing altitudes – who thinks of that? It isn’t a thing which the plot hinges on, but a thing which would be true, if the place and the people existed.

“Understand”: What if everything started to make sense to you? Society, language, music, psychology, math, government, violence, dominance, and even murder? The story shows you what that might be like, and the feeling of understanding the potential in that much coherence is at least momentarily overwhelming.

“Story of Your Life”: By far, my favorite story of the collection. It’s a story for people who have loved enough to understand going through all the pain and sorrow and loss of real life, just to feel the good parts again. Like everything else Chiang writes, it also features a sideways look at a real science (in this case, both physics and linguistics) and how that might be viewed differently in a world where the rules aren’t the same as ours. I enjoyed this story for the emotional aspects, the way it made me feel something deep in my chest, and the way it let me empathize with a character I could see, clearly, had no other choice. I was also intrigued by the description of a race of extra-terrestrials that truly was alien, instead of simply a scaly/tinted/tailed version of  a human society.

“Seventy Two Letters”: A weird little tale about homunculi and golems and the secret powers of words. I had to read this twice before I settled into liking it, not because the story was written badly (it certainly wasn’t!) but because the oddity of the material required another look. I actually love golem stories, ever since I was a kid and found out what they were. I always thought of them as being a secret art, whispered about only in silent libraries and dark corners of a temple, not something right out in the open where any kid could learn how to make his clay toys walk. Thinking of that way, it’s obvious how the story should unfold, which is how it does – and another great aspect of Chiang’s writing is that he doesn’t work against the grain of the story. He doesn’t need to rely on twist endings to shock the reader or to make a statement. Simply by showing us a world which works the way he thinks it should, he shows us something worth seeing. No tricks required.

“Liking What You See: A Documentary”: It’s the style of writing, in bits and pieces, a journalistic pastiche, that intrigued me about this story. Though I actually found the story to be one of the few in the book which covered already-written-about territory, the way in which Chiang presents it is novel enough to make it work.

I talk about Chiang’s collection in terms of feelings and understanding, because that’s how it affected me when I read through it. I had an emotional reaction to many of the pieces in Stories of Your Life and Others which I hadn’t been expecting, but am grateful for. So many writers can be clever or subtle or quick or brilliant, but how many can be all of those things and affect your heart as well?

Trade paperback/ebook · October 2010 · 9781931520720, Small Beer Press