In this short story, everybody gets a letter which predicts the date when they will die. The date of death then becomes common knowledge, and knowing these dates helps society function. Some other details include the protagonist walking out of his house, mentally noting the dates of his neighbors, the man hired to mow his lawn...

The protagonist won't open his letter, and his fiance leaves him because of the uncertainty he's subjecting her to.

I don't remember what happens after this exactly. I think he's tortured by the prospect of his letter generally. Maybe his anguish by the full determinability of human life drives him to open his letter, which says he will die that day, and then he kills himself.

I read this short story within the past year, and I believe it was linked on Hacker News.

  • Hi, welcome to SF&F. When and where did you read this?
    – DavidW
    Commented Sep 5, 2021 at 1:26
  • Thanks, I believe it was linked on Hacker News and I read it within the past year.
    – CBB
    Commented Sep 5, 2021 at 1:41
  • 1
    @CBB could you please edit that into your question?
    – SQB
    Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 12:01
  • 1
    Reminiscent of heinlein's "Life-Line" (predicted death dates in envelopes) but details don't match.
    – user14111
    Commented Sep 6, 2021 at 22:54

1 Answer 1


Machine of Death: a collection of stories about people who know how they will die. It's a 2007 short story collection of unconnected sci-fi stories written by different authors in different styles, all tied together by a shared sci-fi premise:

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. – First paragraph of shared premise from the website

Machine of Death is an anthology of short stories edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !, inspired by this episode of Ryan’s Dinosaur Comics. From January 15, 2007, through April 30, 2007, Ryan, Matt, and David invited everybody in the world to submit short stories for the book, without fee or prejudice. Hundreds of writers from five continents took them up on the offer. – First paragraph of explanation of how the book came to be, also from the website

And you can now read the stories in a free e-book.

I do not know which particular story you read though. Hopefully it's in this anthology, but it could be any of the much more stories inspired by the premise that didn't make the cut.

  • 6
    The machine of death tells you the manner of your death but not the date. Commented Sep 5, 2021 at 4:42
  • Agreed, the "machine of death" stories are the wrong way around.
    – CBB
    Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 4:47
  • Although the general premise doesn't include knowing the date, a couple of the stories tweak the formula in various ways, such as some people getting a date, or everyone getting a statistical date. I just flipped through my copies (there's a second volume, This is How You Die) and didn't immediately find a match, but the question is vague enough that it could be in there - or, as you say, a story based on the premise and published independently.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 21:04

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