Monthly Archives: January 2011

Welcome to the Machine

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.

Title: Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die
Editors: Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, David Malki
Year: 2010
Rating: 4/5 stars

I love an anthology with an interesting theme, and this one’s got it in spades. The concept came from a comic written by one of the editors in which a character makes a comment about what the world would be like if everyone knew how they were going to die. At that point the genie was out of the bottle, people were fascinated, ideas were kicked around, and the result is the volume before us now.

The concept is more than a general theme, however, since the editors set out the basic premise that each story is to follow. That premise, in a nutshell, is this:

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 spit 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. [....] 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 being shot by a bedridden man in a botched home invasion. [....] There were now machines in every doctor’s office and in booths at the mall. You could pay someone or you could probably get it done for free, but the result was the same no matter what machine you went to. They were, at least, consistent.

And every story is consistent in complying with the details of that description, including the block letters, the mall, and especially the machine’s twisted sense of linguistic ambiguity, which is a big part of what makes it such an intriguing premise in the first place. Included are thirty stories (chosen from over 600 submissions) from authors around the world, amateurs and pros alike, none of whom I was previously familiar with. Don’t let that put you off, though, because the writing quality is fairly high overall. Styles run the gamut, including adventure, humor, horror, fantasy, and sci-fi; but no matter what style each author uses, they all pay careful attention to how this invention would change our world, and its social, psychological, economic, and legal effects. Among some of the effects explored are: high school kids creating a new social hierarchy based on how “cool” one’s death is; hiring discrimination based on manner of death; the impact on the medical profession; the new world of dating and romance (who would you rather marry, an “OLD AGE” or a “PRISON KNIFE FIGHT”?); and the choices made by criminals (if you’re going out by “ELECTRIC CHAIR,” why not really earn it?).

This is a tight anthology; all the stories are true to the given theme and you don’t have to wonder why a story was included (as with some anthologies). I definitely give extra points for that. The downside of that tightness is that if you read this cover to cover, the stories all feel a bit too similar. So I’d recommend you space it out, read a bit here and there over time. There are no badly written stories here, and the creativity level is high. My only serious complaint is that there are so few stories that tackle the premise…. if I may put it this way…. from a sci-fi standpoint. There are a few nods to quantum mechanics and information theory, but by far most authors don’t attempt any explanation of HOW the machine works, but simply accept that it does. It would have been nice if the editors had included more stories taking a hard-edged science fiction angle; but I certainly enjoyed this exercise in “speculative fiction.”

You can pick up a copy of this 450-ish-page anthology for a pretty decent price. Or, for those of you comfortable reading your fiction from an electronic screen, you can actually download a free pdf of the entire thing. So come on, really, you have no excuse not to read this.

Natural history — or maybe not so natural

What if this entire planet were made of the same substance as Isol’s engine? What if the whole system was too? Suppose it wasn’t ordinary matter, but only looked like it at certain levels? Then a planet might talk, might think, might do as it wanted.
But what was the “it”?

Title: Natural History
Author: Justina Robson
Year: 2003
Rating: 3/5 stars

This book represents my first encounter with British sf writer Justina Robson, and my initial impression is that of a solid, if not necessarily spectacular, writer and novel. The action takes place several centuries in the future. Mankind has undergone a self-directed evolution, with the ability to design many different body types for almost any conceivable purpose. Genetic engineering and other advanced technologies have resulted in a new branch of humanity, the Forged. A Forged individual might have a body adapted to survive the pressure of the deep ocean, or with the ability to fly, or to travel through space without an external vehicle, or any of a multitude of possibilities. There are even Forged capable of terraforming other planets, turning the entire Solar System into humanity’s home. Of course the Forged represent only a portion of the species. The rest choose to change in less drastic ways (various levels of cybernetic enhancement), or not at all. These latter are known as the Unevolved or, as many of the Forged call them, Old Monkey.

That somewhat demeaning moniker should give you a clue about relations between the various types of humans; those relations are strained. The Forged have long been used almost as a slave labor force, and many resent their bondage to “Form and Function,” the idea that because their bodies were designed for a certain task then their lives must be constrained by that task. The entire novel takes place against the backdrop of an almost inevitable civil war, and raises pertinent questions about the political and social consequences when humanity begins to drastically alter itself in such a fashion, creating such differentiated versions of the species.

So that’s the background. The actual plot gets underway when Voyager Lonestar Isol, a Forged deep space explorer, comes across the first evidence of alien life. “Life” might not be accurate because, well, it’s no longer alive. But Isol also encounters a piece of alien technology that begins to change her, ultimately in more drastic ways than her human creators ever did. Nearby is a planet that appears to be the home of the apparently vanished architects of that technology, and Isol is strangely drawn to it; she dreams of using it as a new home for the Forged, for all those Forged who wish to break free from Old Monkey and start directing their own destiny. But that planet is not what it seems, and the technology Isol found is far more powerful and mind-boggling — and dangerous — than anyone could have imagined.

I really like some things about this novel. Robson does a fair job of examining issues of transformation and identity; how much are people willing to change their bodies, and what still counts as “human”? There are some very interesting scientific concepts woven into the story as well. Where I felt it was weak was in the overall level of immersion and believability. There was not enough attention given to world-building detail; this entire future society seemed like a mere sketch and thus was a little hard to fully buy into. The same is true of some of the characters; it was difficult to get inside their heads and understand their real motivations on any deep level. Or sometimes I knew a character’s motivation, but not why that motivation existed or where it came from. This is one case where I think a novel would have benefited from being a little bit longer and fleshed out a bit more (it’s 325 pages, actually not that long for contemporary sf). As it stands, though, I think the pros outweigh the cons enough to consider this a sufficiently rewarding reading experience.