“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.
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?
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.)