Monday, March 31, 2014

February's Book: This Is How You Die

This Is How You Die ed. by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo and David Malki
Literature (2013 - 475 pp.)

This Is How You Die is the sequel to 2010's smash hit Machine of Death, a book about a machine that tells people how they will die but not where, when or why. The concept is explained briefly here, in its very first appearance half a decade before the first installment's publication. Each book is divided into short stories, some written by the editors and most submitted by fans. Machine of Death is one of my favourite books, so the prospect of a sequel got my attention immediately. The surprising thing was that I read it a little over half a year after its release date, not sooner.

The book's promise that it takes the world of the Machine in new directions is absolutely true. While Machine of Death uses the Machine in a variety of contexts, from an adolescent rite of passage to a virtual taboo, This Is How You Die expands its scope beyond our world into sci-fi, fantasy and other realms. My one complaint about this expansion is that the Machine by itself can make an otherwise mundane modern (some might even say "literary") setting into a captivating story, whereas people shooting each other with rayguns don't need a Machine of Death to make the story otherworldly. The more like everyday life the world is without the Machine, the more jarring its presence is. That said, "Lazarus Reactor Fission Sequence", reminiscent of a cross between a mad scientist tale and a Cold War-era spy novel, is one of the more compelling reads. So is "Not Applicable", the story that probably confounds the concept of death the most. The Machine is daunting enough in regular society, so the prospect of it becoming somehow confused can become ominous in a hurry. "La Mort d'un Retourier" places the story in history rather than in another world, which is a nice touch but that is used sparingly in the book for maximum novelty.

My favourite story in This Is How You Die might be the opener, "Old Age, Surrounded by Loved Ones". It is one of the more introspective stories in either book, examining the way death predictions can take on so many different meanings in our lives. It is a fitting opener for part 2 but would have been a strange way to introduce the Machine, so readers are recommended to read part 1 first. Other highlights include some of the more creative story formats - "Meat Eater"'s downright creepy children's manual and "Your Choice"'s gamebook-styled theme make for their own contemplation of how someone presented with a Machine might try to evade its prediction. "Meat Eater" confronts the understandable fear children may have of the Machine in much the same way they may fear a measles vaccination, at once sympathizing with its life-altering capabilities and brushing them aside. "Your Choice" may include one of the frankest discussions of suicide I have ever read in fiction, showing the reader what the impact of a prediction can be on the people surrounding the one who receives it. "Execution by Beheading" addresses the unfortunate dissonance between how different people interpret the prediction cards.

Still others discuss situations rather than causes, which complicates matters. "Screaming, Crying, Alone and Afraid" makes the reader scared for the ones who are about to die rather than merely interested in their deaths. "Peacefully" considers what occurs if the range of possibilities is constrained greatly from the typically assumed cornucopia of millions of different predictions. Seeing a verb or adverb on a prediction card is not something I had considered before but must in many ways be far more chilling than a traditional "OLD AGE", "IN SLEEP" or even "MURDER".

One thought that crossed my mind, and has likely crossed many others, is what I would do if I knew how I would die. A key consideration is that encountering the cause of death does not necessarily mean death is imminent. For example, someone drawing "CANCER" may then develop one form of cancer, survive it, and then succumb to a different form of cancer decades later. All someone can do is live life with the cause of death entering whenever it does, with the best outcome being exactly what it was before the Machine: not knowing how you'll die.

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 3

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