I read an article in the Boston Review earlier this month, an article unfortunately unavailable online, that discussed the impact of Amazon upon book publishing and sales. It argued that Amazon is not a force for good in the book world as it has removed the 'buy' option for books from publishers who have refused to give the online distributor deep discounts on bulk purchases and has attempted to create an early artificial ceiling on e-book prices for its Kindle, a price that would be untenable for publishers once Amazon required a larger cut of the sales.
I do not refute any of it, but I do give Amazon credit for providing a platform where it was possible for a short story collection, already not the most popular writing, written by a bunch of nobodies and illustrated by people only slightly better known to be the best selling book in America for a day. Seriously, look at the contributor biographies in the back. The most accomplished of them have webcomics. The rest offer jokes along the lines of those found in university arts and literary journals. What's more impressive about this feat is that it topped Amazon sales the same day that Keith Richards' memoir Life and Glenn Beck's latest provocation Broke were released, the sorts of books that end up in Costco because their assumed market is so large. This took some planning as the editors asked people to wait to buy Machine of Death until a certain day to pump up its sales ranking, but it is impressive nonetheless.
I'm fairly well tempted to leave this post at that. A collection of bloggers and webcomic artists independently published were more popular for a day than a member of one of the biggest bands of the twentieth century and a man whose rally in Washington D.C. attracted at least tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands. That's pretty sweet.
But what about the stories?
As you might expect in any short story collection, even one by Tobias Wolff or Raymond Carver, they are a mixed bag. Some are excellent, some are less so. They are all bound in including the titular machine of death, a device that is able to predict absolutely the means of someone's death. Any attempts to avoid or circumvent the prediction fail or just lead to it in a Death in Baghdad sort of way. Unfortunately, the predictions are not always clear. They are often vague and more frequently ironic and unexpected. CRACK can be cocaine or a break in a sidewalk. ALMOND can be choking, an allergic reaction or being buried under the tasty nuts.
The writers cover every possibility. They create origins of the machine, they consider the greater social implications of the machines, they imagine the individual struggles against and acceptances of predictions. In fact, these cover about every possible scenario, and it feels as though thirty-four stories is too long for the collection as I began to dread another overly serious story about someone refusing to accept their predicted death. For a collection inspired by a webcomic, I expected more laughs and have a preference for Brian Quinlan's "HIV Infection From Machine of Death Needle," Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw's "Exhaustion From Having Sex With A Minor" and Shaenon K. Garrity's "Prison Knife Fight." Though not without their flaws, Camille Alexa's "Flaming Marshmallow" has a wonderful voice in imagining the reformation of high school cliques in the face of the death predictions, and Jeff Stautz's "Loss of Blood" creates the best dystopian response to the predictions. Bartholomew von Klick has a great exploration of accepting death in "Shot by Sniper" while Erin McKean and William Grallo contribute some poetic pieces with "Not Waving But Drowning" and "After Many Years, Stops Breathing, While Asleep, With Smile On Face" respectively.
And what about the illustrations?
Those are pretty sweet, too. Some of the biggest names in webcomics contributed, and my favorites included Christopher Hastings, Brandon Bolt, Carly Monardo, Aaron Diaz, John Allison, Roger Langridge, Rene Engström and Ramón Pérez.
Buy Machine of Death. You'll laugh, you'll think, you'll appreciate some art, you'll stick it to a man who is a sneeze away from collapsing into a pile of cocaine and another man who is a pinprick away from popping like a balloon filled with rage