“Improperly Prepared Blowfish” is available in the Machine of Death anthology, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki. (Order a copy, or check out the book’s website.) My story is illustrated by Jeffrey Brown. Go ahead and listen to the official Machine of Death podcast, narrated by
This story was one of the first batch of stories I sold, after attending Clarion West — not quite the first, I think, but maybe my third or fourth professional sale. It was written especially for Machine of Death. The concept of the anthology was as follows (from the book’s site):
The machine had been invented a few years ago: a machine that could tell, from just a sample of your blood, how you were going to die. It didn’t give you the date and it didn’t give you specifics. It just spat out a sliver of paper upon which were printed, in careful block letters, the words “DROWNED” or “CANCER” or “OLD AGE” or “CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN”. It let people know how they were going to die.
The problem with the machine is that nobody really knew how it worked, which wouldn’t actually have been that much of a problem if the machine worked as well as we wished it would. But the machine was frustratingly vague in its predictions: dark, and seemingly delighting in the ambiguities of language. “OLD AGE”, it had already turned out, could mean either dying of natural causes, or shot by an bedridden man in a botched home invasion. The machine captured that old-world sense of irony in death — you can know how it’s going to happen, but you’ll still be surprised when it does.
The realization that we could now know how we were going to die had changed the world: people became at once less fearful and more afraid. There’s no reason not to go skydiving if you know your sliver of paper says “BURIED ALIVE”. The realization that these predictions seemed to revel in turnabout and surprise put a damper on things. It made the predictions more sinister — yes, if you were going to be buried alive you weren’t going to be electrocuted in the bathtub, but what if in skydiving you landed in a gravel pit? What if you were buried alive not in dirt but in something else? And would being caught in a collapsing building count as being buried alive? For every possibility the machine closed, it seemed to open several more, with varying degrees of plausibility…
As you can imagine, being sent a link to the invitation to write a story set in such a world was pretty much like being mailed a box of candy. I had a ball trying to figure out what the reception of this machine would be in Northeast Asia, finally settling on it being banned in Japan and working from there.
For information about yakuza, I had a look at the expanded edition of Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld by David Kaplan and Alec Dubro, as well as poking around online and turning to a few friends for advice about Japan, the Japanese language, and the story itself. (Thanks are due to Charles La Shure, as well as several of my classmates from Clarion West, particularly Maura McHugh, Caroline Yoachim, Ian McHugh, and Tina Connolly.)
I also had a look around online at the subculture of Zainichi Koreans in Japan — the Koreans who live in Japan as permanent residents but not as citizens. (“Zainichi” means “staying in Japan” apparently.) It seems that one reason there are such deep links between the Zainichi and the Japanese yakuza is that Japanese society was long (and to some degree remains) fairly unwelcoming of other ethnicities. As we can see by looking at various marginalized immigrant groups in Western countries (especially America, or at least, that’s the example I know best), one of the most promising fields (along with entertainment and sports, where Korean-Japanese also have excelled) for such groups is organized crime.
If anyone’s wondering why the machine gets banned in Japan, by the way, it’s simple: suicide is socially much more acceptable in Japan, and more widespread as well. (Just as it is here in Korea.) It stands to reason that when people received slips from a Machine of Death that specified the cause of their death as suicide, that, prone to depression of this sort, they might commit that suicide sooner. Causality is, of course, arguable, but the still-paternalistic society was quite willing to accept a ban on the machines for the sake of social stability.