Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, David Malki, editors: This Is How You Die

In 2005, an installment of the web strip Dinosaur Comics touted the conceptual perfection of a story about a machine that could predict, with unerring accuracy and a perverse sense of humor, how each individual user would die. People have been writing their own versions of that story ever since. With the publication of 2010’s anthology Machine Of Death, a one-off webcomics gag became a cottage industry. In addition to the book, there’s a podcast of MOD stories being read, a merchandising line, and a spin-off card game. The latter’s success suggests the popularity of the original story collection—the Kickstarter pitch asked for $23,000, and funded with more than $550,000.


So it’s no particular surprise that the concept would spawn a sequel anthology as well. But what is consistently surprising about This Is How You Die: Stories Of The Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine Of Death is the range and quality of the stories. Machine Of Death was smart and sophisticated. The stories often had twist endings, but they tended to be O. Henry-style twists, based in well-realized characters and the inevitability of fate, rather than cheap reversals or shock-driven rug-pulls. The sequel keeps the insight and the commitment to solid storytelling, but broadens the scope considerably. The editors challenged contributors to take the central concept in bold new directions, and the result is a much wilder collection that stretches around the globe, spans a range of genres, and experiments with the short-story form.

Among other things, This Is How You Die includes a choose-your-own-adventure story (the protagonist’s predicted cause of death is “Your Choice”) and a Sherlock Holmes story where Moriarty invented the machine. There’s a murder mystery set in Zimbabwe, where the owner of a private security firm chases a serial killer, feeding his victims’ blood to the machine in hopes of finding a solid clue among horrifying readings like “He will laugh while you cry.” At a Mumbai call center, a woman with bossy, controlling parents provides phone support for Machine Of Death users, while contemplating her own possible end. In a high-fantasy setting, an Orc Berserker seeks a death prediction as a desperate means of establishing his own unique identity. In a supervillain’s lair, a functionary in charge of creative murder studies the Death Machine readings of captured spies, and tries to arrange the circumstances that will kill them. In Grace Seybold’s particularly concise, imaginative “Drowning Burning Falling Flying,” friendly aliens visit Earth, and the question of whether the Death Machine will work on them exposes how thoroughly the machine has affected humanity.

All these stories find not just different ways to explore or ignore the knowledge of impending death; they also find strikingly different perspectives. The first anthology explored a variety of conflicting ways the machine might affect society; the second expands that approach to new and more unusual societies, from a handful of kids who collect cause-of-death cards to a far-flung technofuture where a singer earns her living by composing elaborate ballads that turn her patrons’ opaque death predictions into triumphs. Only the thinnest thread of a premise connects John and Bill Chernega’s “Meat Eater”—a cartoon-illustrated Homeland Security packet for parents trying to explain government-mandated Death Machine readings to their 6-year-olds—with Liz Argall’s “Blunt Force Trauma Delivered By Spouse,” a graphic, painful character study of an Australian farmer in a passionate but abusive relationship, fighting to rebuild her life in spite of her eponymous prediction. At heart, This Is How You Die is a celebration of creativity, exploring how impressively far one idea can be stretched without breaking.

It’s also an exercise in anticipation—as with the first volume, each story is titled after a death-prediction within the story, so each one starts with a built-in promise that a mysterious title like “Monsters From The Deep” (Malki’s contribution) or “Lake Titicaca” (Bennardo’s story) will somehow pay off.

But while the second book keeps everything that worked in the first anthology, it also improves on the format. The previous redundancy has been ironed out; the stories consistently take the machine for granted rather than spelling out repetitive backstories. The internal illustrations are more ambitious and thoughtful. And the push for more conceptual diversity let the editors dodge the original book’s biggest problem: the sense that many of the stories, however well-written, were just minor variations on the same story about learning to live philosophically with death. This Is How You Die keeps the intellectual curiosity and empathy, but its variations are anything but minor.