Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Thanatos ex Machina

You may hever have heard of Machine of Death 2, so here's the skinny: it's a planned short story anthology, still soliciting submissions up to the 15th, built around the common concept of a machine that can tell you how you're going to die. The first one, as I understand, was rather successful, and I've already looked at a couple of stories that friends and associates are sending in for consideration. I like it when an anthology reaches this level of prominence; it increases the chances, I think, that other groups will take a chance on the format.

I've known about this project for a while, but I'm not working on a submission. Fact is, I made a conscious decision to not submit to Machine of Death 2, for one reason only: I could not suspend my disbelief over its shared premise. When I said that it's based around a machine that can tell you how you're going to die, that's just paraphrasing. There are actually standards, to quote from the website: "The death predictions in your story MUST always be accurate, they MUST always be the same for each individual, and they MUST be derived from a blood test."

It was pretty much as soon as I finished reading that part that my thinking went from "oh, this could be an interesting endeavour for me" to "are you serious." I suppose it's the way my brain works, and the implications of the above "musts" when you look at the titles of the stories in the first anthology - each story, incidentally, has to carry the death prediction as a title. So the first one had stories called "Torn Apart and Devoured by Lions," "HIV Infection From Machine of Death Needle," and Yahtzee's "Exhaustion From Having Sex With a Minor" - which, attention-grabbing though they may be, did not help me with my issues very much.

I mean, this is some machine that's testing blood! And it can tell you how you're going to die with 100% accuracy even when that has nothing to do with blood!

I was thinking about this the other day, when it hit me: I have this problem precisely because it's a machine.

This machine doesn't need to take a blood test to tell you how it's gonna kill you. Not necessarily 100% accurate, though.

Generally speaking, I expect certain things of machines. I expect them to work unless they're broken, at which point I expect they were designed and built in such a way to preclude repair, and so get another one. I expect them to hew closely to the "known," or at least to be based on a fundamental understanding of how the world works. Take something like faster-than-light in science fiction; while it goes against the theoretical underpinnings of the universe today, all it needs is an acknowledgement that our understanding improved and we figured out new ways of doing things.

I don't expect them to go in for mysticism. In the end, that's how I see the idea of the Machine of Death: mystical. It's like some electronic oracle. Which, incidentally, is something I could accept - in human form. There's a long, long, long tradition in storytelling of people who can do mysterious things, impossible things, things far beyond the norm: it speaks to something deep in us, perhaps of our desire to bend the world to our will. I could accept the idea of a human who, with nothing more than a sample of your blood, could tell you with total accuracy how you're going to die - because it's impossible. No human could do that, but we're accustomed to the idea of people doing impossible things. Of not being subject to how we understand the world to work.

For me, I think, the use of a machine in that role makes those justifications break down. The use of a machine, to me, implicitly says "this thing obeys the rules of the universe as they are understood in the setting." But I can't accept the idea of a universe where precognition is understood and possible. Michio Kaku, in his Physics of the Impossible, labelled it a Class III impossibility for its violation of the known laws of physics, alongside perpetual motion machines. But precognition through blood?

In the end, I need to be able to believe my own stuff. If I can't suspend my disbelief over something I create, how can I expect the reader to do it?

I want to make it clear, though, that I'm not trying to attack the Machine of Death group - they're doing an awesome thing and I hope they will continue doing awesome things. Plus, the first was released under a Creative Commons license! It's just that I can't be a part of this particular awesome thing.

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