Literature / Machine of Death

Machine of Death is an anthology of short stories released in 2010, centered on a premise from one episode of Ryan North's Dinosaur Comics: A machine exists, capable of predicting a person's future cause of death through a simple blood test and revealing it via a few words printed on a simple white notecard. The machine's predictions are completely infallible and always correct, though they are not always as straightforward as they seem: for example, "old age" could mean anything from an uneventful death of natural causes to murder by an octogenarian, and such ironic and unusual deaths abound.

The book is composed of short stories selected from a collection of nearly 700 submitted stories, plus illustrations by various artists and cartoonists. Authors include Ryan North, David Malki ! (Wondermark), Randall Munroe (xkcd), Yahtzee Croshaw (Zero Punctuation), Tom Francis (Gunpoint, Heat Signature), and many more. It is available online as a free ebook, while an audiobook version is being distributed as a series of podcasts (also free).

A second volume, This Is How You Die, was released on July 16th, 2013.

This anthology's frame story or the shared elements of the stories contains examples of:

  • Black Box: No one knows exactly how the Machine works. It was invented by accident, and while it is easily and cheaply reproduced, its workings are impossible to understand.
  • Cruel Twist Ending: Surprisingly avoided for the most part; the majority of the stories don't end in the main character dying a terrible, ironic death, despite the premise, since the editors thought this kind of story was too obvious or tacky.
  • Death by Irony: The Machine's vagueness can lead to these, for example predicting death by OLD AGE, so a person believes he's safe, until he's killed by an old man, or the already vague NATURAL CAUSES.
  • Exact Words: The Machine loves this.
  • The Fatalist: Too many to count. If you know how you're going to die, some people just accept it.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Except for a few ("Fudge", "Love Ad Nauseum", "?" and "Miscarriage"), the stories are named for a prediction which applies to somebody inside the story.
  • Prophecy Twist: Often mentioned in passing; occasionally also ends a story, although for the most part the stories end before we see how the main characters' cards work out.
  • Screw Destiny: Plenty of people adopt this mindset and go on living with their lives. It doesn't help.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: The Machine says you'll commit suicide. You commit suicide. But as several stories note, maybe you only went to the machine because you already had suicidal tendencies, and it only confirmed your prior urges.
  • Short Story: All the ones in the book, but taken to the extreme with "HIV Infection from Machine of Death Needle".
    "'Well,' I thought, 'that sucks.'"
  • Things Man Was Not Meant to Know: In most of the stories that go far enough into the future, the knowledge from the Machine of Death essentially consumes society and turns life into a state of constant paranoid madness while awaiting death at any moment. There are even groups that protest it.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: Some of the stories set further past the Machine's introduction have a whole extrapolated future culture developed from the Machine of Death's existence.
  • Twist Ending: Usually a Prophecy Twist or Prophetic Fallacy. Usually.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: The Machine is never wrong. What the Machine prints on your card is how you're going to die - though it doesn't have to happen in the most obvious fashion. This also means that circumstances will generally conspire to keep you alive (even against all odds) in situations that aren't printed on your card, in an odd inversion of Necro Non Sequitur - but your death can still sneak up on you in unexpected ways, like "Old Age" turning out to mean "shot to death by octogenarian."

The individual stories contain examples of:

  • Apocalyptic Log: In "Almond", kept by the Machine's operator.
  • The Cassandra: Lampshaded with the Meaningful Name of the main character of the story "Cassandra". Instead of trying to warn others, she finds a way to circumvent her prophecy altogether.
  • Choose Your Own Adventure: The appropriately-titled story "Your Choice".
  • Dark Secret: In "Natural Causes", the reason the fake machine doesn't get caught is that everyone in town hides the prediction they actually got from it, out of embarrassment.
  • Decadent Court: "Blue Fever" is set in one, and the lord at the head of it is the worst and most dangerous of the lot.
  • Death Seeker: In an oddly upbeat example, the protagonist of "Torn Apart and Devoured by Lions" is very much looking forward to his predicted death, and is saving up for a trip to Africa.
  • Death's Hourglass: While it's averted in most of the stories, there are a handful of exceptions:
    • In "Exhaustion From Having Sex With a Minor", a leading politician has a prediction stating that he will be killed by a car when he is 57, and has built his entire campaign around it. Turns out to be a Prophecy Twist. The Exact Words of the prediction were "knocked down by a car aged fifty-seven"; when the man's death arrives, fifty-seven is the age of the car.
    • In "While Trying to Save Another", a very small minority of death predictions come with dates attached. The story focuses on a support group for people with these predictions.
    • "Zephyr" has computers (separate from the Machine) that extrapolate from the cause of death to compute the approximate time of death as well. Your chance of death remains zero until a few years before your predicted time of death; after that, you are "on the curve", meaning your odds of dying at any given moment get higher and higher, until they finally hit 100%. In other words, you can die a bit early, but you will never die late.
    • In "Apitoxin", Sherlock Holmes's latest client has been given the prediction "GARROTED THURSDAY NEXT". Holmes notices that this is the only example of a prediction with a date attached; based on this, the circumstances of how the prediction was made, and a close analysis of the slip of paper in question, he deduces that it must be a fake.
    • The infobubble predictions from "In Sleep" include the date of death. In at least some cases, the precision is down to the minute.
  • Despair Event Horizon: "Despair", naturally. Although the protagonist is fated to die by crossing the Horizon, she does not actually cross it in the course of the story. But she notes that she does get a little bit closer to it.
  • Dystopia:
    • "Loss of Blood" is set in a world where all the predicted deaths are organized by the government as soon as possible to prevent collateral damage from people who try in vain to avoid their fate.
    • "Not Applicable" uses the Police State variant, with a leader referred to only as "the Speaker". The reasons for the formation of the state are left ambiguous.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: There are a few stories where death predictions foretell civilization-ending or species-ending levels of destruction, including "Cassandra" and "Conflagration".
  • Eternal English: Averted with tragic results in "Furnace". Archaeologists in the distant future uncover a Machine of Death, but their only Rosetta Stone for the English language is a disc full of porn. A critical mistranslation results in them assuming that the Machine predicts what will bring its users the ultimate sexual satisfaction, and things turn ugly when people start dying thanks to its "suggestions."
  • Evil Gloating: Dr. Jeth towards the American agent near the end of "Lazarus Reactor Fission Reactor." Though the "evil" part is questionable.
  • Fate Worse Than Death: "Starvation". The main character, who got the titular prediction takes a very long time to die, legs broken in a hole and on top of that he is rescued, so now he knows what it feels like and he will have to endure it again.
  • Historical In-Joke: "La Mort d'un Roturier" is set during a party in 18th-century France where the protagonist runs a clockwork-operated version of the Machine of Death for the amusement of the guests. She herself claims the device is merely a cleverly-built fraud, but all the guests receive the same inscrutable prediction nonetheless: "Guillotin."
  • Island Base: Dr. Jeth's island in "Lazarus Reactor Fission Sequence", where he is building the titular device.
  • Mad Scientist: Dr. Jethmalani of "Lazarus Reactor Fission Sequence" is a Deconstruction. He is a brilliant, obsessed scientist with all the standard trappings of a classic Bond villain: an Island Base, an army of loyal henchmen in charge of murdering the secret agents who show up, and even a touch of Evil Gloating once his Evil Plan nears completion. And what is his plan? He wants to invent a new kind of nuclear power plant that produces enormous amounts of power with zero waste for hundreds of years. And then share his research with the entire world. For free. But since most governments would prefer to hoard that kind of knowledge for themselves, and he doesn't trust most governments, he had to keep going to greater and greater lengths to continue his work in the way he wanted. You could argue that he was forced into villainy.
  • Memory Gambit: In the first book's final story, "Cassandra", the main character erases her own memory as well as all evidence of her fate (GLOBAL THERMONUCLEAR WAR) in an attempt to reset the quantum uncertainty of it and prevent it from occurring to the world.
  • Original Flavour: "Apitoxin" is a Sherlock Holmes mystery in the style of the original short stories. The first Machine has just been invented, and Holmes is hired by a man who is being extorted over his predicted death.
  • Our Orcs Are Different: "In Battle, Alone and Soon Forgotten" focuses on Grun, an orc in the service of an evil sorcerer who is told repeatedly - in poetry, no less - that all orcs are fated to be Cannon Fodder and nothing more. We never learn what his death prediction really is, but it isn't the one from the title - instead, he ends up fulfilling the sorcerer's death prediction, and writes his own poem declaring that the orcs have a right to Screw Destiny.
  • The Plan: The protagonist of "Aneurysm", Sid, really hates party games. When his ex-wife tells him that she will be hosting a dinner party where guests will take the test then guess each other's deaths as a party game, he uses sleight-of-hand to toss in a forged death, "party game mishap", which simultaneously ends the game and makes it so he will never have to play a party game again.
  • Pretentious Latin Motto: In "Not Waving But Drowning", the Machine, or the company that makes it, has the motto Dum vivimus vivamus ("while we live, let us live").
  • Prophecy Twist: In one story, a man is told he'll die by suicide. He resolves to take the life of another in a way that contradicts their machine-predicted death, then kill himself—when instead, a suicide bomber was in line behind him and sets off the bomb. The machine never said he'd die by his suicide...
  • Rage Against the Heavens: Randall Munroe's story, "?", consists almost entirely of a rant against some higher power, the universe itself, or the author.
  • Serial Killer: The protagonist of "Vegetables".
  • Set Right What Once Went Wrong: This turns out to be the premise of "Not Applicable". Everyone who gets the titular prediction is fated to still be alive at the moment the timeline is re-written; afterwards they will never have existed in the first place.
  • State The Simple Solution: In "Lazarus Reaction Fission Sequence", the main character works for a Mad Scientist. His job is to kill intruders in ways that technically match what is on their slip. During one portion of the story, he struggles to come up with a way to kill a man whose slip reads "Victoria Falls." He eventually finds a two-thousand pound island tapir, names it Victoria, and drops it on the man's head. Afterwards, his colleague points out that since his boss owns the island, he could have just had him rename a waterfall.
  • Stupid Sacrifice: in the story "While Trying to Save Another", Timothy reaches the exact moment and circumstances of his death and knows he can't possibly save Isma either, but charges into a burning building anyway.
    • He could have just made the final decision to die with her; giving himself a noble death.
  • Subspace Ansible: "Murder and Suicide, Respectively" points out that the Machine could be used as one.
  • They Would Cut You Up: The grandfather in Nothing came to this conclusion, figuring that if the religious nutcases didn't burn him at the stake or force him to play at being messiah, then the scientists would try to kill him to figure out why.
  • Toilet Humour: In "Natural Causes", the main character gets the prediction "on the john". And so does everyone else in town; the machine is a fake.
  • Tomato Surprise:
    • The protagonist of "Exhaustion From Having Sex With a Minor" is blackmailed with the threat of having his eponymous death revealed, which he believes would destroy his political career. He reveals his secret to the public himself, both to break his blackmailer's hold on him, and because he doesn't want to be Prime Minister. Turns out the public doesn't care, since he's not even 18 himself, and he wins in a landslide anyway.
    • The protagonist of "Zephyr" turns out to not be one of the Ephemerals (soldiers predicted to die in battle) at all, but rather one of the Invincibles (soldiers predicted to die of other causes). He's assigned to Ephemeral units incognito to improve their combat effectiveness without impacting their morale.
  • Weird Trade Union: The psychic-dreaming protagonist of "Drowning" belongs to Local 111 of the S.S.C.W.I. (Sub and Supra Consciousness Workers International).
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?:
    • The protagonist of "Flaming Marshmallow" (cause of death: "millennium space entropy"), if only because she has no idea what death-based high school clique she's supposed to join.
    • The protagonist of "Heat Death of the Universe" has nightmares about being the last living thing in existence.
  • Yakuza: The characters in "Improperly Prepared Blowfish".
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Despite the above, there has been one noteworthy subversion. In "In Sleep," it's possible to trade deaths with someone, as the protagonist discovers to her horror: her death, in peaceful slumber 80 years in the future, has been stolen from her by an influential political figure and exchanged with his own violent (and imminent) death by defrag weapon. While she's unable to avert this fate, she ultimately survives it nonetheless: she has a rare gift that makes her an ideal candidate for being transformed into a Machine of Death herself.
  • Zombie Apocalypse: In "Peacefully".