The Preserving Machine (short story)

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"The Preserving Machine" is a science fiction short story by American writer Philip K. Dick. It was first published in 1953 in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and is included in a later collection of the same name, The Preserving Machine.

"The Preserving Machine" was originally a companion piece to another Doc Labyrinth story, "Left Shoe, My Foot", later published as "The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford".

Plot summary[edit]

Doc Labyrinth fears for the safety of the fragile works of high culture, particularly classical music, in the event of the apocalypse. Accordingly, he orders a machine to be built that will transform musical scores into animals capable of surviving and defending themselves on their own. The machine successfully transforms several composers' works into various animals-- Bach pieces into little beetles, Schubert songs into a lamb-like creature, and so forth. The Doctor, joyful at his success, releases them into the world; but when he finds them later, he finds that they have undergone evolution-- they have grown claws, stingers, and fed on one another. When the Bach beetles are fed back into the machine, the resultant musical scores have also changed, become wild and chaotic, with all their beauty and harmony lost.


"The Preserving Machine" is, primarily, a brief and poignant fable about the worth of aesthetics, beauty, and high culture, in the face of change. The fable also turns the coin the other way, with aesthetics used to question the value of evolution and survival, asking at what expense they come. The incarnation of human cultural forms in brutal animals also suggests the opposition between the animal and "human" instincts within us. The story shares this preoccupation with animals with Dick's later work, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, wherein artificial animals are used to replace species that are extinct or in the process of extinction, just as androids threaten to replace mankind. Finally, the story opens up questions of the value of the archive and of cultural preservation, as well as being an example of a pre-post-Apocalyptic tale.