Friday, September 30, 2011

The Preserving Machine by Philip K. Dick

I've been enjoying a book of early short stories by Philip K. Dick, master science fiction author. These stories, from the early fifties, are filled with mind-bending ideas and less than stellar prose.

The Preserving Machine was published in June 1953. Besides a narrator, the main character is named Doc Labyrinth. The action takes place in Los Angeles.  Dick opens with a description of suburban L.A.
I was standing by the barbecue pit, warming my hands.  It was a clear cold day.  The sunny Los Angeles sky was almost cloud-free.  Beyond Labyrinth's modest house a gently undulating expanse of green stretched off until it reached the mountains - a small forest that gave the illusion of wilderness within the very limits of the city.  "Well?" I said. "Then the Machine did work the way you expected?"
This Machine, the Preserving Machine, is pretty amazing.  It preserves sheet music in a most remarkable manner.  And not just any sheet music, but classical music in particular. 
This is how he came to think of the Preserving Machine.  One evening as he sat in his living room in his deep chair, the gramophone on low, a vision came to him.  He perceived in his mind a strange sight, the last score of a Schubert trio, the last copy, dog-eared, well-thumbed, lying on the floor of some gutted place, probably a museum.

A bomber moved overhead.  Bombs fell, bursting the museum to fragments, bringing the walls down in a roar of rubble and plaster.  In the debris the last score disappeared, lost in the rubbish, to rot and mold.

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

If music had that faculty, the ordinary, everyday instinct of survival which every worm and mole has, how different it would be!  If music could be transformed into living creatures, animals with claws and teeth, then music might survive.  If only a Machine could be built, a Machine to process musical scores into living forms.
This being a Science Fiction story, you know that the machine gets built - and in due course music animals are created.  The above quote might lead you to expect animals based on particular works, like a Schubert trio.  Instead, Dick gives us composer animals.  For example:
After that came the schubert animal.  The schubert animal was silly, an adolescent sheep-creature that ran this way and that, foolish and wanting to play.
Once they become animals, their name is no longer capitalized.  The mozart animal is a bird, beethoven a beetle, brahms an insect, stravinsky another bird.
The wagner animal was large and splashed with deep colors.  It seemed to have quite a temper, and Doc Labyrinth was a little afraid of it, as were the bach bugs, the round ball-like creatures, a whole flock of them, some large, some small, that had been obtained for the Forty-Eight Preludes and Fugues.
Of course, all these critters escape into the nearby forest and begin to evolve and compete.  Some survive, others succumb.  The Doc feeds an evolved bach bug back into the machine, reconverting it into sheet music which he then performs at the piano.
I listened to the music.  It was hideous.  I have never heard anything like it.  It was distorted, diabolical, without sense or meaning, except, perhaps, an alien, disconcerting meaning that should never have been there.  I could believe only with the greatest effort that it had once been a Bach Fugue, part of a most orderly and respected work.
Had I been writing this story, instead of Philip K. Dick,  the reconverted music would have been very strange but not hideous.  Music as it grows and evolves should try new, unfamiliar ideas, some of which will survive, others not.  Survival of the fittest?  Eventually the musical unfamiliarity ought to fade in our ears, allowing new species to contribute to our enjoyment.  Adaptation and evolution, either of music or animals, ought to be the real reason that they flourish and reproduce.  Of course pieces of music which you never hear will not survive or procreate.

These days classical music already has a fully functional, well-oiled preserving machine - in the form of symphony orchestras and opera companies and classical radio stations only too happy to reproduce the same limited number of works over and over again for audiences eager to hear their favorites one more time.  This machine discourages adaptation but it does a good job of preserving any piece which can claw its way into the repertory.  A new work, which at first might sound hideous, diabolical or alien, will never find an audience if it has to compete against the well-entrenched, machine-preserved herds of beethoven, schubert and wagner animals roaming our cultural landscape.

Animal Tags: . . . . . . . . .

1 comment:

Archivist/Cultural Liaison said...

i wish more music was like his stories, but you have approached that~