Thursday, November 4, 2010

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

Internet fame is a strange, wonderful thing.

I'm not talking about your run-of-the-mill bloggers and every adolescent pixel-art Web comic that infests the Information Superhighway. I'm talking about your Internet superstars - the people who have not just Internet Fame, but Internet notoriety.

Ryan North, author of Dinosaur Comics and co-founder of sites like RSSPect and Project Wonderful, is one such dude. He has cultivated an almost Stephen Colbert-like relationship with his audience, in that he can create things by simply willing them to be. When one of his comics mentions a fictional mashup of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Layla," it stops being fictional the very next day because someone has made it. This is the incredible power of the Internet Celebrity.

Something similar happened when North created a comic about a book about a machine that told you how you would die. Pitches for stories started coming in, and North, along with collaborators Matthew Bennardo and David Malki !, were so impressed by their quality and quantity that they began considering putting together an actual book about the fictional Machine of Death.

The content of the book itself is certainly interesting, but no less interesting is the story of how the book came to be.

Generating Internet Interest in the book wasn't a problem, but generating publisher interest in it was something else again. The editorial trio apparently took the book to no fewer than six agents; all were enamored of it to varying degrees, but none could sell it. No one, the editors were told, would purchase an anthology written by a bunch of nobodies with no big names attached. To whom could they sell audio rights? Who would handle the translation and international release? Who would buy and make the movie version? The list of questions, a list which is apparently endemic to Big Publishing, stretched on, and was a source of frustration to this group of Creative Commons-supporting Internet moguls who threw most of their creative output up on the Web for free.

So North, Bennardo and Malki ! decided to publish independently. They knew how the Internet worked, at its best - their own enthusiastic followers would buy the book, drawn by the editors' names as well as the extensive list of Internet celebrities who served as the book's authors and illustrators. They didn't need to make millions of dollars to recoup any costs or to subsidize less successful projects - they simply believed in the quality of their product and wanted to get it out there.

They put out a call: We're publishing a book - you can buy it now, but what you should do is wait to buy it until October 26th. If we can sell just a few hundred copies on that one day, we can make it to #1 on the Amazon.com bestsellers list.

And that's what they did! They made it to the top of the list, in spite of the high-profile launches of both Keith Richards' autobiography and that jackass Glenn Beck's latest assault on the senses book. This was not only impressive, but it also managed to make Glenn Beck pretty mad. I think that last part is so rad that I've sort of shoehorned it in, even though it really doesn't serve the flow of my post particularly well.

Machine of Death is, then, a win for the Internet. It's noteworthy just because of what it is and what it did and how it did it. What makes it even better is the fact that it's a damn fine read.

The original comic from which this book has sprung posits that a machine has been invented that will unerringly tell a person how he or she will die. If your prediction reads "knife fight" or "alligator" or "tomatoes"then you can be sure that it's how you'll meet your end, but as with monkeys' paws the machine's predictions are often not what they seem. "Tomatoes" could mean that you eat a poison tomato, or that you are buffeted by tomatoes until you die, or that you're killed by a guy named Tomato, or that you die from fright while watching Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. It's this ambiguity that drives most of the stories on display here - your reading might say "Love" or "Fudge," but what does that mean? The machine's prediction is almost always worse than the uncertainty with which you and I live.

The book is a collection of some thirty stories, most clocking in at about ten pages (though some are longer and others are merely a single sentence). The only consistent entity is the presence of the Machine of Death; the appearance of the machine, the depth of its integration into culture, and peoples' responses to it and its predictions vary from story to story. This is both wonderful and frustrating - each story offers up a uniquely interesting take on the Machine of Death, which is impressive, but sometimes I found myself so taken in by one writer's universe that I wanted it to serve as canon to the rest of the book. It's not a bad complaint to have, and it's the only one I can muster.

The stories here are uniquely engaging - fully formed yet economical, well-written yet not inaccessible. Some writers play the concept for its inherent morbidity, while some play it for the same uneasy laughs as did the original comic. "Despair" is about a doctor who must treat an entire group of people who will all die, cryptically, from "tests." "Torn Apart and Devoured By Lions" is obvious and just a bit silly, and "HIV Infection From Machine of Death Needle" is, well, pretty self-explanatory. It's an incredible gamut to run, and you can rarely tell what you're in for based merely on the title of the story.

I don't want to ruin anything else for you. Suffice it to say that if you like Web comics or indie efforts or successful print media or just damn fine writing, you need to pick up Machine of Death from Amazon right now. The book is just too good to pass up, and even if it doesn't have mainstream appeal, even if it doesn't come from a major publisher, and even if it doesn't make Glenn Beck happy, I'm sure it'll become an instant classic among the Internet's denizens.

Bearstache Books' Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die is available for $17.95 on Amazon.com, which you'll surely pay if you find the book as entertaining as I have. If that ticket price is too forbidding, though, you can find completely free PDF and audiobook copies available for download from the official Machine of Death Web site