The Preserving Machine

Story Background
“The Preserving Machine” is a story by Philip K. Dick, first published in Fantasy & Science Fiction in June 1953. Pages numbers come from Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick (New York: Citadel Press), pp. 149–156.

Plot Summary
Doctor Labyrinth is worried that human civilization will collapse, “going the way of Rome” (149). This leads him to imagine a machine that will preserve music in the genetic material of animals. He calls this possible device “The Preserving Machine.” He sends his ideas to different scientists and engineers. His inquiries are finally taken up by a Midwestern university.

The first experiment with the machine is Mozart’s G Minor Quintet. The machine turns out a bird that looks much like a peacock. A Schubert piece turned into a type of sheep. Beethoven music turns into a beetle. While some of the creatures are surprising they seem to conform to some of the feelings that the piece of music inspires. The “Stravinsky bird” was made up of “curious fragments and bits.” (152)

Labyrinth follows the development of his creatures but is horrified to learn that they seem to be evolving to their new conditions. This evolution is rapid. Labyrinth realizes that music is an expression of beauty that cannot survive in the biological struggle for survival. Although the experiment is a failure, these creature will not reproduce and disrupt the ecology. Out of curiosity they put the bach bug back into the machine to see how the music was transformed by the evolution. The music that comes out is horrible distortions without any meaning. Labyrinth despairs that human cultures cannot be artificially preserved.

This short story is quite thematically rich. To start, the idea behind transforming knowledge into genetic material has fascinating transhumanist implications. Of course, Dick again gets evolution wrong by suggesting that these individual creatures evolve, when in fact it is populations that evolve. Of course, with Dick, what is more interesting is beyond the surface.

Doctor Labyrinth’s concern about the fate of the human culture is a not uncommon sentiment. We are almost always on the brink of a dark age according to someone. This is the opinion of Morris Berman in his book The Twilight of American Culture. He even envisions a preserving machine of his own in the form of a new generation of monastic cultures that can preserve the American tradition from the barbarians in the same way medieval months preserved the classics until the Renaissance picked them up. Labyrinth ends the story fatalistic. “That his musical creatures should survive could mean nothing to him any more, for the very thing he had created them to prevent, the brutalization of beautiful things, was happening in them, before his own eyes.” (154)

Dick may be making a commentary on electronic reproduction. Dick worked in a record story before he made. money from his writings and perhaps had an understanding of what Walter Benjamin observed about the transformative effect of mechanical reproduction. Benjamin argues that while reproduction of art and music allowed the masses to consumer art, it also destroyed the aura that art and music had in its non-reproduced form. (The original in a museum or a performance.) It seems to me that the least you can say about mechanical reproduction is that it makes the destruction of human culture less likely (if done properly and with care). For instance, books clearly have greater preservation potential than the Internet. Notice as well that while City Opera went bankrupt, the Metropolitan Opera is expanding its reach by showing operas around the world through theaters

The corruption of the beautiful comes about because the creatures the Preserving Machine created had to live in a fallen world. Perhaps Dick is suggesting that the beautiful really cannot survive in the world as it is. I posted below one examples of the vulgarization of art. Do these things have a preservative effect by leading people to appreciate them or do they degrade the authentic experience?

Finally, since Dick’s musically tastes did not conform to the trends in 20th century music, perhaps this story is a backhanded attack on musical modernism. He did make the Stravinsky bird rather odd looking to begin with and his description of the “horrible” music than came from the evolved animals shares characteristics with modernism. “It was distorted, diabolical, without sense or meaning, except, perhaps, an alien, disconcerting meaning that should never have been there.” (155) Is this not how some conservative critiques decried modernism?

Wikipedia entry on “The Preserving Machine.”

Thought experiment on using DNA to preserve knowledge.

Wikipedia entry on the “knowledge ark.”

Benjamin article, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

Is classical music at risk?

Mozart’s G Minor Quintet mentioned in the piece.

Salut Salon performance. Is this a preserving machine?

A Schubert song I think worthy of preservation. (Note: Another 600 are worthy as well, but I have limited space.)

About tashqueedagg

Searching for the radical themes in American literature. American literature for the age of Occupy
This entry was posted in Animals, Art, Knowledge, Philip K. Dick, Technology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Preserving Machine

  1. The preservation of cultures would run through his literary work like a gayly coloured thread.”The Preserving Machine” began the thread that explored this theme,and would soon evolve into strange dramas such as “Time Out of Joint”.Here,the preservation of “our” cultural heritage,is not
    done for the benefit of civilisation,but appears neccesary for the sanity of individuals who can’t cope with the stress of “modern” existence.Ragel Gumm so far as I remember,later admits he prefers the warmth of “old town”.It seems cultural values are important,despite being a facile scam by the government.It also appears neccesary for memory to redefine identity in this case

    In “The Man in the High Castle”,the preservation of artifacts,offers comfort to Americans,who find it hard to accept defeat by Axis forces.The recreation of traditional artifacts,is neccesary to preserve history in order to hold society together,as in “We Can Build You”,where mechanical simulacra of actual personages is preserving the old frontier tradition,whilst in “Martian Time-Slip”,the colonists are obsessed with artifacts of old Earth.In “Dr. Bloodmoney”, old values are kept alive by the musings of an astronaut surviving from the old days,but as in WCBU and MTS,it can also cause mental displacement.What you say above about the beautiful can’t survive in a fallen world,seems highly pertinent here,especially pertaining to MTS,where an innocent daemond controls the Universe.

    Continuing through his work of the decade,in “Now Wait for Last Year”,a vast playground built on Mars,offers recreational escape for people with long life spans and memories.In this case however,it seems it could cause mental derangement,that’s made worst it seems by a drug which creates “illusions” that allows it’s users to travel back in time,that could be particularly dangerous,and the’re likely to fall into delusion.

    The short story,”If There Were no Benny Cemoli”,features a false character,a revolutionary leader to preserve “our” heritage,but in “The Days of Perky Pat”,model artifacts seem a better method of maintaining our cultural past.This was the seed for the novel,”The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”,where the strain of recreating a vanished era through artificial stimuli however,is causing permanent psychosis.As in “Now Wait for Last Year”,their malaise is exasperated by a powerful drug,but the idea of a fallen world that’s too imperfect for “our” history to be preserved,couldn’t be more pertinent than here,where a flawed creator God,Palmer Eldritch,is of course responsible for the state of our world.What chance in this case,would “they” have to recreate the glory of our history?

    In Subsequent novels,such as “The Penultimate Truth”,it’s not surprising in an imperfect world,that an insidious government seeks to undo our history and obliterate “our” heritage with untruths,but the concept of a imperfect world as the reason for our condition,like the “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”,couldn’t have been conceived of better as a theological argument than in “Counter-Clock World”,where history is being restored as the dead are resurrected,but also slowly eroded as they regress.

    Later,in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”,the recreation of lost antiquities,seems to have reached it’s zenith.The quaint things of a lost past are replicated with an old fashioned artisan’s craft and state-of-the-art technology.Those that have survived are treated as sacred.A saintly if dubious messiah,Wilber Mercer,brings salvation to a flawed world through his power to restore the past when joined in fusion through faith and empathy.It seems that art and beauty can be made compatible this time.Even the fake toad that Rick Decard discovers in an outlandish location,is treated with respect as it’s a link to their historical heritage.

    In DADOES,the Martian frontier is still thriving for colonists who want to leave a devastated Earth,but is no comfort for those who want at least the illusion of former values.History is vital to the continuation of human culture,but in succeeding novels such as “Ubik”,the importance of the frontier seems to have been forgotten,but a more spiritual reality has been breached,and the restoration of the past,unlike “Counter-Clock World”,is caused by entropy,that regresses modern artifacts and places into earlier versions.Like “Martian Time-Slip”,an imperfect daemond is behind the awful process,and only the divine substance Ubik,can reverse it through spiritual salvation.As in DADOES,art and history can it appears,can be saved,but in the powerful novelette “Faith of Our Fathers”,art and nature meet with the flawed creator God in a final confrontation.There is no hope for the continuation of artistic culture or history.

    The quaint “Galactic Pot-Healer”,sees the end of art and culture,as craftspeople are made redundant by automation.It’s difficult to retain “our” artistic culture as old skills become obsolete,but a chance is offered pot healer Joe Fernwright to use them to raise an ancient artifact,and defeat the imperfect world creators,who have divined it can’t be done,but in “A Maze of Death”,the imperfection of a fallen world is felt through the awesome Form Destroyer,an avatar of “God” in “Faith of Our Fathers”.It’s not surprising that AMOD is so empty with no visible historical heritage,although spiritual salvation can still be acheived.

    “A Maze of Death” comes closer to the end of the decade,where the dissolution of the new frontier and the end of history as you call it,leads to the 1970s novels,where there is no recreation of “our”
    cultural past.It is no longer neccessary.Disillusionment has set in.Bob Arctor in a “Scanner Darkly”,can only find solace in drugs,but is splitting his psyche in two with no escape,whilst in “The Divine Invasion”,ancient religion permeates reality with all it’s imperfections and art can’t offer any comfort.

    Mental illness,illusion,religious experience.These cerebral states dictate the changes and revelations in Dick’s strange but singular fiction.They pertain to your essay about “The Preserving Machine”,but of course there are political and social reasons too.The imperfect world above and below the surface,is evident there,and will inevitably corrupt any purity,but there is faith and solidarity also.They are the only salvation before or if sinking into darkness.

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