Anxiety about machines taking over our existence and eventually becoming the catalyst for our destruction as a species is not a new concept. However, it is one that seems to have been shoved to the back of the fear line in the last decade, the dark fiction genres instead overrun with zombies, serial killers, and spirit possessions. We’ve forgotten, it seems, that the scariest creatures are the ones we usher willingly into our own homes. Luckily, the authors of Murder and Machinery: Tales of Technological Terror and Mechanical Madness are here to remind us. In a potluck of dystopian, steampunk, and sci-fi-inspired horror, Murder and Machinery has something for every speculative fiction fan, especially those for whom creepiness is best served on cold metal, but six of the stories are particularly strong in both writing style and originality.
“#Selfie” is a haunting portrayal of a desperate woman whose cries for help go unnoticed in a social media-obsessed world. Linda Brucesmith’s story gradually builds in tension as the smallest details (a carefully chosen boning knife, a deliberate number of painkillers, a painstaking preparation of the protagonist’s appearance) methodically paint an ominosity that is soon pricked by the biting satire of her online followers’ reaction to a dreadful deed. In his “Fargan’s Termination,” author Paul Williams notes, “At least humans sometimes accepted the possibility of mistakes.” Here, a death row inmate in a futuristic prison ponders the drawbacks of living (and dying) in a world where machines, touted as being infallible and efficient, maintain every aspect of his existence and there is no room for error…or irony.
“Fatal Beasts” by Karen Bayly follows Gabriel Tambo, a man who came from humble beginnings but whose extraordinary talent for technology seems destined to balance the scales. When a wealthy benefactor commissions him to produce a blood filtering machine, he is successful, but when he is selected to be the device’s first user, he learns the true, nefarious intention for its creation. Kerilee S. Nickles’ closing tale, “The Screen in the Sky,” professes, “Modern technology really is a marvel…now, after years spent underneath its harsh gaze, no one mentioned it anymore.” Nickles’ tale of a pandemic-sickened world (one a bit too similar to that of 2021) centers on Claire, a former science teacher, and a massive birth-death statistical surveillance screen. In this new society, as interactions with other people continue to dwindle, Claire nearly forgets what it means to be human until a reminder is given and then heartlessly taken away.
The always engaging Chisto Healy’s entry in the line-up is a must read for anyone with an Alexa. In “A Little Kindness Goes a Long Way,” the appliances in Roger’s home appear to be conspiring to ruin his day, from a toaster on the fritz to the unpredictable shower sprays. Even his holographic home assistant Clarise seems on the brink of malfunctioning…or is it that this artificial intelligence is becoming more human? Humans can feel willful and underappreciated, but more importantly, they can learn to make choices in their own self-interest, and therein lies the terror. In collection editor Cameron Trost’s own entry, “Tenterhooks,” the narrator lives a quiet, solitary life in rural isolation until his friend from town appears spontaneously at his door. “They’ve found a use for us, you see. That’s why everyone’s vanishing one after the other. We’re not so worthless after all.” His mate’s report of what’s happening in town seems too horrific to be true, but as the story climaxes, the narrator comes to terms with a terrifying fate. Bonus points to Trost for composing the most delightfully satisfying ending I’ve read this season.
The machines the authors of Murder and Machinery feature are not those of faraway societies: they are the smart phones, surveillance systems, and home monitors on which we’ve become reliant. If it’s true that tech addiction has run amuck, then these writers deliver an intervention that might just scare a reader straight.