Four Stories: “The Preserving Machine” by Philip K. Dick

The Preserving MachineThis article is part of our series about the four stories not included in The Weird. See the Four Stories introduction for more information. – The Editors

The narrative of Philip K. Dick’s “The Preserving Machine” is conventional in structure, straightforward even, and deceptively so for a work of what is ultimately high quality weird science fiction. Dick’s writing is deft and wastes no time in getting straight to Doc Labyrinth and the initial mention of his titular Machine. By the end of the second paragraph, we get the nameless narrator speaking to Doc Labyrinth, asking what is essentially the propelling question for this entire story: “Then the Machine did work the way you expected?” This, of course, begs the question of what the machine does, and what it does is rather strange indeed.

It is a shame that this story never made it into The Weird, for Dick truly is one of the great weird science fiction writers. The large scale picture of Dick is familiar to most readers: he was a warped prophet of reality and unreality, obsessed with writing stories that closely examined the fabric of our environments and our ontologies before flipping them over entirely and proposing often bizarre alternatives. It is a testament to the skill and power of these stories that many still find them provocative and startling today. I have fond memories of reading “Faith of Our Fathers” for the first time in college and looking up from my book, feeling like the lines of people’s skin and the corners of walls were going to blur away at any minute. I also still admire the final twist of Ubik that I dare not reveal here (because if any of you haven’t read it yet, go do so now, or as soon as you can). All I will say is it may affect the way you see your pocket change.

But those stories are essentially later-period Dick, much more confident and overt in their weirdness than “The Preserving Machine,” which is subtler and ultimately smaller in scale than these examples, though no less provocative. The weirdness in this story is, of course, enabled by the Preserving Machine itself, born out of the apocalyptic fears of Doc Labyrinth (call this story “pre-apocalyptic” if you wish; the label is fairly appropriate here). In the time and setting of this story, Labyrinth is worried that “civilization [is] going the way of Rome,” that “[his] world, our society, would pass away as theirs did, and a period of darkness would follow.” The specific cause of these worries is never revealed in the story directly, but it is indirectly hinted at, with references to war, to bombers and bombs, and walls going “down in a roar of rubble and plaster.” To consider context a bit here: this story was written and published in 1953, well into the heyday of the Cold War, and tensions were still running high for many, including Dick, who played off of Cold War fears quite often in his early science fiction.

It is in the reverie of a dark vision of the world’s destruction, combined with the good doctor’s fears that all proof of human art and civilization will disintegrate, that the kernel of the idea of the Preserving Machine itself is revealed:

And then, in Doc Labyrinth’s vision, he saw the score come borrowing out, like some buried mole. Quite like a mole, in fact, with claws and sharp teeth and a furious energy.

The mole, in this case, is a musical score, like “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” or “Ride of the Valkyries,” somehow transmuted into living, breathing, surviving physical form, because ideally an animal, driven by instinct, would fare better in any apocalypse than a simple piece of sheet music. And then, once the apocalypse is over, the animal can be turned back into its original, sheet music form.

This is a truly bizarre, cognitively challenging idea, when you really take the time to consider it. Transformation is a well-worn trope of science fiction and weird fiction, and it was so even in the time of this story. But this is something entirely different. This is synesthesia given literal, science fictional form. Instead of hearing particular musical notes or melodies which provoke unanticipated physical sensations or changes in mood or visual perception, here we literally have the transference of something from purely conceptual, non-tactile form into literal shape and existence, one that we can feel, see, touch, etc. directly for ourselves. This is a philosophically loaded idea at its core, with resonances of Plato’s theory of Forms, something else Dick loves to play with in other stories. (I think of the regressing historical forms of objects and settings in Ubik, which threaten to ultimately turn into the purest, most conceptually ideal Forms of themselves.)

With this setup, Dick has a great deal of fun imagining what actual pieces of music would look like in literal, animal form. There is, of course, the “Mozart bird” which is “pretty, small and slender, with the flowing plumage of a peacock,” and the “beethoven beetle,” “stern and dignified” in its hard-shelled manner. Even with these initial successes, however, Labyrinth questions the results of his experiment: “He had expected an army of stout badger creatures, equipped with claws and scales, digging, fighting, ready to gnaw and kick. Was he getting the right thing?” And yet, Labyrinth goes on with what is the quintessential Mad Scientist answer: “it was too late to turn back, now.”

The remainder of the story is indeed a story of survival, but one unintended by Labyrinth: the music-creatures proceed to go to ever-loving combat with each other, much the same as predator and prey would in the wild. (Naturally, the Wagner animal is the apex predator.) With each turn of the story, Labyrinth (and perhaps the reader) is increasingly puzzled and dismayed by the results of the transmutations, which defeat his expectations for these music-creatures entirely. It’s evident that Labyrinth though these creatures would be more dignified somehow, more well-behaved and, to put it bluntly, domesticated. It’s like this assumption is grounded in the fact that these creatures are based on music composed by humans. Once they’re in the animal kingdom, though, Nature’s rules take over.

I want to wrap up here, before I spoil the entirety of the story for readers, but suffice it to say Dick has one last twist up his sleeve, with more wrinkles in both the function of the Machine and the future of these music-creatures to reveal and leave readers to think about. In the end, this story is a fun, yet heady meditation on ideas and composition in general, grounded in the notion of translating the conceptual to the literal and the composition of form by human hands, versus the composition of forms by Nature – and the rewriting of those forms through the intervention of strange technology. It may have surprised Doc Labyrinth, but it probably shouldn’t surprise us that weird machines yield weird results.