- 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 spat 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.
The problem with the machine is that nobody really knew how it worked, which wouldn’t actually have been that much of a problem if the machine worked as well as we wished it would. 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 shot by a bedridden man in a botched home invasion. 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.
The realization that we could now know how we were going to die had changed the world: people became at once less fearful and more afraid. There’s no reason not to go skydiving if you know your sliver of paper says BURIED ALIVE. The realization that these predictions seemed to revel in turnabout and surprise put a damper on things. It made the predictions more sinister –yes, if you were going to be buried alive you weren’t going to be electrocuted in the bathtub, but what if in skydiving you landed in a gravel pit? What if you were buried alive not in dirt but in something else? And would being caught in a collapsing building count as being buried alive? For every possibility the machine closed, it seemed to open several more, with varying degrees of plausibility.
By that time, of course, the machine had been reverse engineered and duplicated, its internal workings being rather simple to construct, given our example. And yes, we found out that its predictions weren’t as straightforward as they seemed upon initial discovery at about the same time as everyone else did. We tested it before announcing it to the world, but testing took time — too much, since we had to wait for people to die. After four years had gone by and three people died as the machine predicted, we shipped it out the door. 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.
If you've not had a chance to read the MACHINE OF DEATH anthology, it's worth a look. It's full of stories about people who know - but maybe don't comprehend - how they're going to die. They're wonderful, they're moving, they're creepy, they're funny, they're all over the place, and threaded with that one single germ: a machine that told them how they would die.
You can get the stories as a .pdf download for free, or you can buy them as a physical anthology, or an e-pub, or as audio podcasts. A staff member brought it to my attention, and I devoured it. All the short story titles refer to one of the Death Machine's predictions (not necessarily the main character's prediction, but always mentioned in the tale in some significant way). It's a sleeper hit of a book - word of mouth and the internet made this anthology into a small phenomenon, and even if science fiction or speculative fiction isn't your thing, I think you'll find the premise - and what the authors did with it - a real treat.
So why am I mentioning this?
Well, if you were in Los Angeles, there was a Super-Stupendous Machine of Death Magic & Variety Show. At said show, there was the announcement of the table of contents and the official title for the second volume of Machine of Death.
There's a story, OLD AGE, SURROUNDED BY LOVED ONES, that will appear in this second anthology, written by someone you may know. Me.
I'm floored. I liked my story idea (otherwise I wouldn't have sent it), but when I heard that there were thousands of entries (yes, thousands), I pretty much figured that was that. Then the e-mail arrived, saying the story had been accepted. Holy flying crap.
Every time I have a story accepted, I feel a genuine thrill. The first time, with FOOL FOR LOVE, I was on cloud nine for days. This week, I sold a story for a Young Adult anthology (my twenty-first piece that's been accepted, if you can believe that!) and I am so proud to have managed something aimed at a young gay fellow - the fellow I used to be, who never found anything that showed someone like myself. Folks, this never gets old! I sometimes feel like when it comes to writing, I've had something of a lack of focus - I've tried to write sad love stories and erotica; young adult and murder mysteries; biopics and magical realism. With the second Machine of Death anthology, I feel like I've done something different again - and I keep waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me to get back on track.
But I think I'll always enjoy skipping around from one thing to another.
I can't wait to see this anthology. And - I hope - you'll join me when it comes out. Believe me, I'll let you know when it's available.