Philip K. Dick, “The Preserving Machine”

images-albums-The_Preserving_Machine_-_20100122162416335.w_290.h_290.m_crop.a_center.v_topA scientist tries to guarantee the survival of classical music by inventing a machine that turns sheet music into animals.

(from Fantasy & Science Fiction, June 1953)

For a moment we saw nothing. Then a bush moved, and for the first time we made out its form. It must have been standing there watching us all the time. The creature was immense, thin and extended, with bright, intense eyes. To me, it looked something like a coyote, but much heavier. Its coat was matted and thick, its muzzle hung partly open as it gazed at us silently, studying us as if astonished to find us there.

“The Wagner animal,” Labyrinth said thickly. “But it’s changed. It’s changed. I hardly recognize it.”

The creature sniffed the air, its hackles up. Suddenly it moved hack, into the shadows, and a moment later it was gone.

We stood for a while, not saying anything. At last Labyrinth stirred. “So, that’s what it was,” he said. “I can hardly believe it. But why? What-”

“Adaptation,” I said. “When you toss an ordinary house cat out it becomes wild. Or a dog.”

“Yes.” He nodded. “A dog becomes a wolf again, to stay alive. The law of the forest. I should have expected it. It happens to everything.”

This is a slightly silly but enthralling little parable about creations getting away from their creators. Aspects of it reminded me of Jurassic Park, though “life uh finds a way” means that Doc Labyrinth’s little Bach bugs and Mozart birds evolve in unexpected ways. (Unlike Crichton’s dinosaurs, their designed inability to reproduce seems to be holding firm.) “The Preserving Machine” also brought to mind a recent episode of 99% Invisible called “Ten Thousand Years” which included a story about “ray cats” which were designed to change color when they were near radiation. Actually, I don’t think the cats were ever created or we’d all have them as pets by now. 

Hey check out this album by Argentinian composer Lanark, each track inspired by an animal from “The Preservation Machine.” Also, you can read the story here.

61bahG8xTILI found out about the Philip K. Dick short story while reading Jonathan Lethem’s NYT write-up on Roberto Bolaño’s magnificent 2666, which I just got finished reading and carrying around. It’s immense, and unforgettable, and ultimately satisfying, though trying at times, too. After closing the book, I wandered around Rittenhouse Square, then Barnes & Noble, but I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. A good book can do that, but it’s a momentary hopelessness and I don’t enjoy it much. I’ll probably read more Bolaño soon. I also plan on posting here more regularly. I’ve said this and seen this before, a peculiar enthusiasm for short stories stirred up by a behemoth novel.

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