Here’s the timeline: Back in 2005, webcomics artist Ryan North posted a Dinosaur Comics strip in which one of his characters proclaimed he was going to write “the best story ever,” about a world where people can get a blood test that tells them how they will die. Readers started writing and sending in their own version of that best story ever. In 2007, North opened the floor to formal submissions, which he curated with two friends, science-fiction author Matthew Bennardo and Wondermark creator David Malki. On October 26, 2010, they self-published Machine Of Death: A Collection Of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die through Amazon, urging their followers to all order it at once so it would, for one day, be the site’s top-selling book. It was, and the media started paying attention—particularly when Glenn Beck threw a wee public tantrum about them outselling his latest book on its release day. In November, they signed a deal to bring the book to brick-and-mortar stores, and as of December, it’s slowly showing up on shelves.
It’s been a quirky labor of love from the beginning, and it remains an odd project. It’s sleek and professionally designed (unlike so many self-published books), yet filled with literal-minded illustrations which don’t add much, even though they come from pop-art stars like Kate Beaton and Kazu Kibuishi. It’s repetitive (since most of the stories feel the need to re-explain the eponymous machine), yet inconsistent in little details which suggest the stories don’t all take place in the same world. Too often, the stories zero in on the same obvious themes about the inevitability of death and the difficulty of reconciling with it.
But all that said, Machine Of Death is a marvelous collection, riddled with intelligence, creative reach, and a frankness that makes the best use of the central gimmick. While the seed idea seemingly lends itself to twist-ending stories about people who try to evade their predicted deaths, there are only a few of those; more often, the stories examine how the death-predictor machine would change the world. Sometimes the changes are small-scale and sociological, as when school kids form cliques around their causes of death in “Flaming Marshmallow”; on the other end of the spectrum, “Loss Of Blood” contemplates a hideous dystopic future defined by the machine’s dictates. Other stories are more personal, often dealing with individuals’ bleak efforts to come to terms with the machine’s messages—”Starvation” in particular has an unforgettable ending—though one of the anthology’s standout stories, “Torn Apart And Devoured By Lions,” showcases a man who finds his projected fate thrilling. Some of the stories are funny (the shortest is a five-word-long gag), while some are steeped in philosophy and poetic irony. North’s “best story ever” isn’t necessarily in evidence: Machine Of Death works better as an illustration of the endless possibilities inherent in the premise than as a showcase for breakout brilliance. But whether taken as an experiment in the new wave of self-publishing or as a proof of concept in the realm of artistic crowdsourcing, it’s a fascinating artifact and a really good read.