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Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die

Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die - Randall Munroe, James Foreman, K. Sekelsky, Camron Miller, John Chernega, David Michael Wharton, K.M. Lawrence, Jeffrey C. Wells, Vera Brosgol, Kit Yona, J. Jack Unrau, Jeff Stautz, Aaron Diaz, Matthew Bennardo, Yahtzee Croshaw, Douglas J. Lane, Brian Quinlan, Kate Beaton

It usually takes me a very long time to get through an anthology simply because anthologies don't have a narrative through-line. Machine of Death doesn't really, either. Technically, most of the stories take place in slightly different versions of the same universe. To employ a bad music metaphor, this book is more like listening to thirty-three distinct variations of the same song, rather than thirty-three songs on the same album by the same artist, with the same instruments and rules. But the concept is so energizing that you just kind of end up buzzing through the book, waiting to see which variation you'll hit next.


As with all anthologies, some stories are much better than others, both in tone and concept, and in execution. The best ones, in my opinion, are those that manage to preserve that sense of wonder and excitement that makes Dinosaur Comics so much fun in the first place. The emphasis in these stories is on theme rather than plot, emotion rather than cheap last-act gimmicks. The worst are the ones that take themselves so seriously, and those that think a twist ending is the #1 ingredient for success. There are a couple of the former in the middle of the collection, and when you hit them, it's like, "Okay, let me stop doing this really fun thing to do this other not fun thing." I was actually reading an interview that Seth Rogen gave a couple weeks ago that reminds me of exactly of the main problem I had with these stories. He was talking about overly dramatic sad indie films, but the sentiment applies. "You made something sad seem sad for two hours. Congratulations!" That's exactly how some of these stories read: as meditations on sadness, and sometimes not even very good ones.


However, there are several really excellent stories in this collection, and they are so good that they make up for the ones that aren't. The very first story, "Flaming Marshmallow," ends up being more about exploring age differences and social circles than it is about death. "Vegetables" is just insane, and saying more than that would ruin it for you. "HIV Infection From Machine of Death Needle" is one single sentence long: "'Well,' I thought, 'That sucks.'" The illustration accompanying it is priceless. (And that's another thing, the illustrations in this book are wonderful, and I recognized a lot of the names from around the internets: Kate Beaton, Dean Trippe, Jess Fink, etc.) Other stand-outs: "Not Waving But Drowning," "Aneurysm," "After Many Years, Stops Breathing, While Asleep, With Smile on Face," "Miscarriage." "Exploded" also deserves a mention, even though it's not my favorite, for two reasons: 1) Because it's the only story to look at the machine from the perspective of it's creators, and 2) Because it features the most gut-punching moment in the entire collection.


But my absolute favorite, hands down, is "Torn Apart and Devoured by Lions," by Jeffrey Wells. Everything about that story is pure genius, and as far as I'm concerned, it was worth the $17.95 for the book just for that story alone. There are two things that that story does well that none of the others do. 1) Real, hearty, meaty dialogue, and phrasing you can sink your teeth into. Wells is a straight up good writer, and if he ever writes anything else, I'm buying it straight up, I don't even care what it's about. And 2) Wells manages to create the most joyful story out of the most horrific premise, which is something that a lot of the stories in the collection don't even try to aim for. Others attempted it, but "Torn Apart and Devoured by Lions" is the only one that really succeeds. I can't say any more than that or I'll ruin it for you.


Anyway, trust me, it's worth it. You don't even have to go out and buy it. You can download it for free.