There is a machine in the world that knows how you are going to die. It will tell you how, but it will never tell you when, and although its predictions can be vague (“FUDGE”) or seemingly ironic (“NOTHING”), the machine is never wrong.
This is the premise behind Machine of Death, a new anthology out today featuring over 30 stories, from both experienced and debut authors, that explores this prolific concept. The idea came about in a 2005 Dinosaur Comics strip by strip creator and Machine of Death editor Ryan North. (This one, in fact.) The notion of such a machine resonated with the strip’s readers, taking a topic as large and multi-faceted as death and focusing it down to a deeply personal level. (What do you think your prediction would say?) That excitement snowballed into the idea of a published anthology full of stories revolving around the Machine.
Below the cut we’ll look at the path the anthology took to publication, see how the finished product came out, and close with an interview with Machine of Death editors Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !.
The Machine of Death project started as “a lark” and quickly grew into very serious plans to put together a book. From the Machine of Death site:
It started small, but everyone we pitched the idea to was as fascinated as we were. So naturally, we ratcheted up our ambition—let’s make it a big book, get everybody involved, open submissions to the world, pay people…
An open submission was held from January to April 2007 and a list of over 700 submissions was whittled down to 30 later that summer. The editors enlisted the help of a variety of talented web and strip comics talent to provide illustrations for the stories, from Dorothy Gambrell (Cat and Girl) to Kate Beaton (Hark! A Vagrant), from Jesse Reklaw (Slow Wave) to Karl Kerschl (The Abominable Charles Christopher), and many more. The finished product was bundled together and offered to publishing houses.
That’s when the project ran into the economics of the publishing industry. Agents and editors loved it, but none could convince their houses to take a financial risk on publishing it. Anthologies, the Machine of Death three editors were told, were a hard sell even with best-selling names behind them. The book was great, but it couldn’t compete in the overall book market.
Ryan North, David Malki !, and Matthew Bennardo weren’t deterred, however, and knew that publishing it through a small press (specifically Bearstache Books, an arm of David Malki !’s Wondermark Enterprises) would be a perfectly viable alternative. All three were familiar with the intricacies of publishing through their own online efforts and knew they could make Machine of Death a printed reality, if not a profitable one. From their site:
This isn’t some vanity-press sour-grapes effort. The simple truth is that we probably can’t compete on the shelves at Barnes & Noble alongside every other book in the world. The agents and the publishers are right; it might not work for a mass market. That’s okay. We don’t need to sell it to everyone. […] We only need to sell it to you.
Towards that end, they’re asking anyone interested in the book to band together today (October 26th) to buy the book through Amazon. A concerted push of a few hundred copies, according to their numbers, would make the book a number one bestseller for a day, which is a hell of a thing to accomplish for an idea that began as a six-panel strip. [Update! As of 1 PM, the book has reached the number one slot on Amazon!]
This, of course, begs the question…is the book worth it?
For an anthology that deals with the inevitability of death, Machine of Death is a lot of fun. The editors knew not to start off heavy, nor does the tone of the anthology lean too long in any direction, providing a lot of singular entertainment for the reader. I thought the methodical technician in “ALMOND” was terrifically engaging, and loved the unlikely mixture of the young adult genre and hard sci-fi in “FLAMING MARSHMALLOW.” It’s hard not to identify with the medical professionals in “DESPAIR” and harder still to not believe a Machine of Death wouldn’t be used like it is in “FIRING SQUAD.”
These stories and more raise many similar issues, however, and it can be frustrating to have to read about them again when you’ve already been satisfied in that regard by a different story. (Or unsatisfied by a repeated theme.) A host of stories find their characters liberated by the certainty of their death and play out their tale with various levels of narcissism and psychosis, which can be wearying to read. That’s the case for stories that center on sentimentality, as well. When played too often, both approaches threaten to becoming grating.
Machine of Death expands its scope outwards as you approach the middle, however, expanding into different genre and offering up some concrete information about the world we’re playing in. (“IMPROPERLY PREPARED BLOWFISH” is a particularly fun gangster thriller while “MURDER AND SUICIDE, RESPECTIVELY” and “NOTHING” are sort down-to-earth science fiction twisters.) The overall theme itself matures, moving into stories that are simultaneously goofier (“EXHAUSTION FROM HAVING SEX WITH A MINOR”…we meet again, Mr. Croshaw.) while taking a more considered look at the Machine of Death and its consequences (“CANCER” by David Malki !). At this point you’re pulled in completely, despite the similarities, and the anthology really begins to shine.
Machine of Death is highly engaging, interestingly crowdsourced, and crafted with a great deal of care. You’ll be thinking about it long after you’re through reading. (I personally finished the book with a wishlist in my head of authors I wanted to see tackle the concept.)
In the midst of, you know, self-releasing a book, the three editors Ryan North, David Malki !, and Matthew Bennardo took some time to chat with me about the anthology. Curious about the detalis behind the book and the concept? Read on!
It started as a joke in Dinosaur Comics, so how did it come to the three of you that, hey, this one-liner is an entire book concept? Or did this realization come after your online community got inspired by it?
David Malki !: It was the community. Everyone on the messageboard kept going and going, suggesting new approaches, new story ideas, new takes on the concept, and it just got more and more exciting. Finally Ryan agreed that if folks sent him submissions, we would collect the best of them, but he’s a busy guy and eventually Matt and I stepped in. We had the idea of opening submissions to the world at large, and it just kept ballooning from there.
Ryan North: This is a nice and generous description of what happened! More accurately I said, “YES, this is excellent, let’s do this!” and then several months went by without any movement on my end, and then Matt and Dave emailed me and said, “Hey, we could get this done a lot faster if you weren’t the only one working on it.” and I said, “Yes, especially since I have been terrible and made basically no progress.” I came up with the idea, but Matt and David were really the ones who are responsible for this book being here.
Matthew Bennardo: To be honest, David is the sole reason that this book exists, as he is the one who shepherded it through the many headaches related to actual production. Ryan and I tried to get him to put his name first on the cover, but he has hang-ups about punctuation always being at the end of things.
Was getting this book published your first encounter with the machinery of the publishing business? How has that process affected you, your opinions of the industry, or your creative process?
David Malki !: All three of us have had things published in small ways in the past. In fact, during the time we were putting this book together I got my first book deal with Dark Horse to do collections of comics, and I feel like I and Machine of Death sort of grew up in publishing together. The more we learned, the more contacts we made, the more we changed the strategy, re-evaluated where we stood, and tried to take stock of both the industry (as we saw it) and our own personal place in the world of comics and internet and micro, micro-celebrity. Eventually that teeter-totter just tipped: there came a point where it just made more sense to do this ourselves.
In webcomics, and internet stuff in general, there’s a DIY, entrepreneurial mindset that serves some people very well but also tends to engender a bitterness towards “the establishment.” If I’ve personally learned anything from this process, it’s that there are different channels for different things in different ways, and those channels can change and evolve with the culture and the economy and technology and everything. There’s no blanket solution to the question of how best to get creative material in front of an audience: it depends on the nature of the work, and the audience, and the creator, and the timing and a million other things. These decisions have to be made case-by-case.
Matthew Bennardo: Outside of my years on a college newspaper, I had never been this close to theproduction side of publishing before. I had always suspected that many excellent and professional publications are really the result of one or two people laboring for long hours in their basement. And now I’m more convinced than ever that the only reason any book exists is because someone out there really wanted it to.
Once you closed the submission process, how long did the selection process take? What considerations went into choosing a story for the final book?
David Malki !: The submission window was open for four months (January through April 2007) and we started reading as soon as stories started coming in. It was July before we announced the final selections—we’d aimed to announce on July first, but I think it was around the fifteenth before we were finally ready.
We chose stories for a number of reasons: interesting characters, novel takes on the concept, variety of setting, and tone were the most important ones. A lot of the submissions boiled down to “middle-class person in a city gets a disturbing prediction” and we got tired of that pretty soon, so we looked for stories that examined the implications of the machine on society in different ways—for example, we have stories set in the insurance industry, the military, schools, hospitals, different countries, and so on. It was neat to see how people explored these different corners of the world. Also, we have a story about the creation of the machine and the very first ripples it causes, and one set in a world where the machine’s been mothballed for decades. It was really cool assembling a collection with a tremendous scope and range of approaches to the concept.
Also, anything that made us laugh or smile or be happy for the fate of humanity was put on the shortlist. We recognized early on the importance of levity in a collection like this.
Ryan North: What impressed me was the wide breadth of stories we got: stuff from professional writers who’d been published elsewhere before, right down to people who’d never written a story before but wanted to because of this anthology. Those were super flattering, and exciting to get—it’s great to see someone do something they’d never thought they’d do, especially when they’re doing it on your suggestion.
Matthew Bennardo: I was also amazed that so many people took the time to write something specifically for this anthology. Lots of anthologies have broad themes—cats or dragons or vampires—so often writers will already have a story, or at least an idea, that fits the theme. With this book, it was very humbling to know that everybody who submitted took their inspiration in part directly from the concept we presented.
Was the appeal of Machine of Death that it tackled a similarly broad theme but asked a question guaranteed to produce a response specific to that person?
David Malki !: It sure didn’t hurt!
Ryan North: I was worried we’d get fewer responses (because people wouldn’t able to easily recycle stories they’d written elsewhere for our anthology) but it turns out we got plenty!
Have you found any surprising commonalities in how these stories deal with the concept of death?
David Malki !: Because the comic that the collection takes its premise from emphasized the ironic nature of the predictions, we got a lot of gimmicky submissions at the beginning: stuff like “CAT” and the guy is immediately run over by a tractor, that sort of thing. We got a lot of SUICIDE stories, some of which were quite good but very depressing. We got a lot of variations on “the ironic twist is that the machine itself is what kills you!” and so we decided to include one for the sake of comprehensiveness (the microfiction story “HIV INFECTION FROM MACHINE OF DEATH NEEDLE” by Brian Quinlan), but we got tired of gimmicky stuff pretty quick. The stories we loved were ones that put the machine in the background, and showed us interesting settings or characters who just happened to inhabit this strange new world.
In fact we even compiled a list for our submitters of Approaches to Avoid. (We added to this during the submission period as we read more and more stories.)
Ryan North: That Approaches to Avoid came out of necessity—we got way more stories than I personally was expecting and this helped cut down on the approaches we were seeing again and again without much variation.
One thing I found fascinating is that many of the stories in Machine of Death are titled with deaths that don’t belong to the main character or narrator, and one can’t help but see the author of any given story echoing the same kind of railing-against-fate reaction that the characters in most of these stories go through (or at least consider). Did this happen in a majority of the submissions you received? Or did it synch up that way by itself?
David Malki !: In some cases, it’s nice to not have the main character’s prediction spoiled by the title [and have it be] a reveal in the story! In others, having the prediction in the title provides background information for the reader so it doesn’t have to be addressed in the story. A lot of the submissions we got were of the “railing-against-fate” type, but we tried carefully to balance out that approach in the book with others.
Matthew Bennardo: A lot of the stories we loved also took the approach that the main conflict didn’t necessarily have to stem directly from the prediction itself. There are many people in the world today who sadly already have a pretty good idea of what might do them in—but that doesn’t mean that a story about a person with cancer has to be entirely about coming to terms with the disease. So stories that incorporated the predictions but also managed to move beyond them to a new place were very appealing to us.
Were there any story perspectives or takes on the concept that you were hoping authors would address? Are there any you really want to see, still?
Matthew Bennardo: We ended up with lots of different genres represented in the book, but there were a few that I kept holding out hope we’d see more of. Personally, I was really hoping for a great story addressing the machine in some historical context—sort of repurposing the concept for a mechanical age instead of a computer age. I think the lack of historical stories was really our fault though. The way we wrote up the submission guidelines really made it sound like we were looking only for stories set in the present or near future.
David Malki !: There were some stories submitted that explored even more takes on the concept, and some angles that we thought were really cool, but we just couldn’t include them. Some of them didn’t feel right for a volume that was a reader’s first introduction to the concept—they were too subversive—and others were just too long, or really cool but had a bad ending, or so on.
If we do another volume, or if people want to take this premise and run with it, I’d like to see more period stories, as if the machine had been invented at some point far in the past.
Do you feel that a concept like an assured answer to how one will die would it better in certain periods or cultures? (Maybe even in different sub-genres?)
David Malki !: I bet Matt’s going to mention the Greeks here, but I was just speaking out of a desire for scope. If I remember right, we got a few period pieces—including one that featured a giant room-sized Machine that ran on punch-cards—that we decided not to run for various reasons unrelated to the setting. And of course there could be a pretty neat steampunk Machine story. But there could also be a cool medieval Machine story, and a cool WW2 Machine story, a cool Aztec Machine story, etc.
Matthew Bennardo: I [wasn’t] going to mention the Greeks, since the Greeks did a great job writing their own stories about the dangers and desirability of knowing the future. I think this is something that people have always wanted to know, but have never truly been prepared to know, so I think it works equally well in all places and times.
Let's talk about the accompanying story illustrations... did you get interest from illustrators or did you seek them out for the stories? Did any stories suggest a particular artist or was it more of an assigned process i.e. Artist A gets Story B, now let’s see what they come up with... ?
David Malki !: One illustration—the frontispiece by Katie Sekelsky—was sent to us in the initial period as a regular submission, and we loved it! The others were commissioned by us.
I credit one of the agents we spoke to, actually; he liked the book but thought we could use our “webcomics cred” to broaden the scope of the project a bit, and we leapt at the idea to involve our friends and colleagues. About 75% of the artists are personal friends of ours whom we hired; 25% were folks we admired and have since met and become friends with.
Early on, we showed the artists a list of summaries of the stories, and they would request a few to read and choose their favorite. In time that became logistically problematic, so it became a matter of saying “Okay, who would be good for X story?” and approaching an artist we felt would be matched well with that piece.
Ryan North: I was really happy when we added illustrations, because it helped push this book into “MOST AWESOME BOOK EVER.” I try to show both the author list and illustrator list whenever we talk about the book, because combined I think it’s really impressive. And this is less bragging and more a “wow, look how talented these people are”!
Any personal favorites amongst the story illustrations?
David Malki !: It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I really love the piece Danielle Corsetto did for my own story, “CANCER.” It captures the quiet unsettling nature of that story particularly well, I think, and it’s just a super-neat drawing besides. In the same way, I love Marcus
Thiele’s piece for Julia Wainwright’s “KILLED BY DANIEL.” It’s a story
full of complex relationships rather than showy action, and Marcus honed in on one tiny detail in a way both unexpected and beautiful. It’s
a tremendous piece of art.
Scott C.’s piece for William Grallo’s “AFTER MANY YEARS, STOPS BREATHING, WHILE ASLEEP, WITH SMILE ON FACE” is also really neat. So many great pieces! I can unequivocally say that I love them all.
Ryan North: I don’t think any of the illustrators dropped the ball here—they all turned out great. I’m also really happy with the cover: I think it gets across the idea in a way that’s fun, and that helps lighten the impression a title like Machine of Death could otherwise give!
How do you think the real world would deal with a Machine of Death?
David Malki !: A lot of people would figure out how to make money off of people’s fear, and the misinformation they spread would cause everyone else to fundamentally misunderstand the situation. Incidentally, this is my standard answer to how would the real world would deal with anything paradigm-shifting and new.
Ryan North: I like to imagine the peace it brings people: knowing how you’re going to die removes one of life’s great mysteries, and I think, a source of stress. Even with a vague description like “sandwiches,” you know that sandwiches are going to be involved somehow. I’d find that relaxing, and I think others would too! Knowing (vaguely) how you’re going to die also gives you something to look forward to: in that last moment before death when you realize it’s over, you’d also realize how your description made sense—especially if it was something unexpected or ironic. I’d imagine quite a few last words would be “OH, now I get it!” or “Man that’s totally cheap.”
In the real world I’d be surprised if there weren’t websites with celebrity machine of death predictions (where they’ve been made public) and then people can say how the death of that celebrity will actually happen based on that prediction, with social media elements for the people who nail the most predictions the best, commentary on how it actually happened, etc. [Note: One of the stories mentions this concept, in particular the tabloid fodder one celebrity provides when their death prediction is “BROKEN HEART.”] This is a true web 2.0 powerhouse and someone is going to get RICH.
Matthew Bennardo: I tend to think that the predictions in real life wouldn’t tell us much that we didn’t already know. A lot of people would find out that they are going to die from heart disease, and a lot of people would get ambiguous predictions that didn’t tell them much of anything. There would be a small minority that got something interesting or troubling, but for the most part I don’t think there’s enough information provided by the machine to really make much of a difference in the real world.
Would you personally use the Machine of Death?
David Malki !: I can barely figure out a bicycle, I don’t think I could be trusted around a Machine of Death.
Ryan North: I’d be all over it. It’s something to look forward to—a gag that builds over your entire life, with that last-second reveal of the
punchline. Yes please!
Matthew Bennardo: When it comes to adopting new technology, I believe I am what is technically considered a “laggard.” So I expect that I would be a principled hold-out for years and years until long after everyone had accepted the machine as part of daily life, and then one day I would go get tested on a whim.
Chris Greenland probably wouldn't take the test and would, generally, be a bit upset at the confirmation that the future is fated and not dynamic.