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Literature: Machine of Death
Machine of Death is an anthology of short stories centered on a premise from one episode of Ryan North's Dinosaur Comics: A machine exists, capable of revealing the future cause of death of a person 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, and is available online as an ebook, while an audiobook version is being freely distributed as a series of podcasts.

Includes stories by Ryan North, David Malki ! (Wondermark), Randall Munroe (xkcd), Yahtzee Croshaw (Zero Punctuation), and many more, plus illustrations by various artists and cartoonists. 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.
  • Twenty 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: If you know how you'll die, it will happen.
    • As proved by the Newton twins, who attempted several times to subvert their fate (Old Age). Apparently, "gun jammed. Car engine died. Gas ran out. Tree branch broke." They also injected themselves with HIV, which just "went away", jumped in a river with cement shoes and were revived half an hour later, good as new, jumped off a bridge... only to be caught on the tarp of a slow moving train.


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.
  • Death's Hourglass: One story extrapolates beyond "cause of death" to knowing the exact time of one's death as well.
  • Dystopia: One of the stories 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.
  • 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.
  • Memory Gambit: In the 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Serial Killer: The protagonist of "Vegetables".
  • 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.
  • Tomato Surprise: the protagonist of "Exhaustion From Having Sex With a Minor" thinks revealing his eponymous death would utterly destroy his political career; turns out the public doesn't care, because he's not even 18 himself.
    • Springtime for Hitler: Said protagonist is planning on the death of his career, both because he's not interested in the position of Prime Minister and because he doesn't want to be stuck in the pocket of a corporation and is attempting to cause their blackmail to backfire. The public cares so little that he wins in a landslide.
  • 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.

Machine ManScience Fiction LiteratureThe Madness Season

alternative title(s): Machine Of Death
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