A curious little book, this, ostensibly the story of a speck of matter from its “highest degree of concentration” to its “most unstructured state”. The former is in the heart of a dawn horse, Eohippus, fifty-five million years before the present; the latter is as the products of the combustion of a drop of petrol in a Ford Pinto, produced at 7.59pm on the 23rd of June 1975 on 1st South Street in Austin, Texas. The moments of overspecification of place and time are not intended (as they are in, say, the narratorial voice-overs in Pushing Daisies) to indicate the comforting embrace of Story; rather they are intended to emphasize the chill inhumanity of the shaping of the world by cause and effect and time. Although there is a human tale within Machine, it is usually crufted with technical, scientific and historical detail, in passages such as this:
It happened as they turned right into the car park at Timber Creek Apartments: the fibres in the calf muscle of Jimmy’s right leg had reacted to the electrochemical signals from his nervous system with a contraction that rearranged the internal positioning of the ankle bones, thus creating a downward pressure which transmitted through his sock and shoe to the rubber-covered surface of the accelerator pedal. From the pedal the command was transmitted to the throttle valve, which opened up and activated the fuel injections system, thus sucking the drop from the tank and transporting it via the pump to the filter and from there into the carburettor that mixed the fuel with air from the open throttle valve. The mixture was carried through the suction manifold to the injection nozzle of the third cylinder, where the suction valve opened as the piston moved downwards from its uppermost dead centre and created a subpressure which sucked the aerated petrol into the cylinder. At the lowest dead centre of the piston, the valve closed so the piston, returning to the upper dead centre, compressed the gas mixture, and just before its arrival the spark plug gave off a tiny spark and ignited the petrol whose combustion occurred at a temperature of just below 2000o Celcius and a pressure of 40 bar.
‘BANG!’ it went. (75-76)
It’s not all like this, of course — some of it is perfectly traditional narrative, with dialogue and everything — and it’s not done without a sense of humour, from the central “horse power” pun to that BANG! But there is quite a lot of what is essentially non-fiction writing about everything from engineering to chemistry to geology to philosophy. Perhaps the story it reminded me of most strongly is Pamela Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe” (1967), in its counterpointing of the mundane (a meeting between two young people) and the vastness of existence, although Peter Adolphsen’s tale doesn’t seek the emotional intensity of Zoline’s: rather, as I said, it is chill, interested in life precisely as a remorseless, endless mechanism. There is little room for desire, of any kind — even that Eohippus is not killed by a hungry predator, but drowns after being startled by a flash of lightning.
Similarly, the encounter between Machine‘s two principle human characters would in another work probably be the start of a love story, but here is purely a mechanism of plot, which is not even consumated, let alone fully resolved. Its significance lies in the parallels it allows to be drawn between various kinds and levels of order, human systems related to broader scientific ones rather than contrasted. Jimmy Nash is Djamolidine Hasanov, an immigrant who escaped from the former USSR in 1970, who found work on an oil pipeline in Utah, but who lost an arm in an accident. His story is the negotiation of organization in the form of power structures, with the formal hierarchy of the USSR (which of course is on an anti-entropic historical trajectory towards perfection) contrasted with the informal conformity of the USA. There is a tension between who he is in each country — he trains a a cyclist, and we are told he is a perfect cycling machine; but like the speck of matter, he must change from one form to another when he leaves, metamorphose from a Soviet to an American. As a hitch-hiker, he’s picked up by Clarissa Sanders, who we are told is average in all ways except her fascination with biology (at one point we are told that she distrusts the hippy vision of humanity at one with nature, and believes that human behaviour could only be fully understood through controlled experiments). When she imagines a future in which molecular genetics is becoming the most important system affecting individuals’ daily lives, we know she is right; but she sees only the potential benefits. When she tries to explain her vision to Jimmy, he sees Gattaca. He gives her some LSD (the discovery and pharmacology of which is of course described by Adolphsen’s narrator), and during the trip that follows rather than perceiving the one-ness of everything she perceives that everything is “too complicated” (70), which feels like a kind of truth.
Of course, it’s a fiction, and there’s a constant awareness in Machine of the tension that telling this story creates between fiction and fact – between the notion that these events are made up, yet something like them has almost certainly happened. Early in the story, a census official, waxing philosophical about the problems with censuses to Djamolidine and his family, notes that “selection and interpretation are activities which presume an acting subject” (19), i.e. that even the census, which involves selection and interpretation, is not pure fact; and by extension, no such narrative of pure fact is possible, no matter how likely it may be. Djamolidine subsequently attempts to improve on the census company’s survey design, but is thwarted by, e.g. intermarriage and other such unavoidable hybridisation problems, reinforcing the point.
The end of Machine takes this concern to a logical conclusion: the narration resolves into the first person, with the narrator revealing themselves to be the neighbour of one of the other characters, and explaining that they’ve been writing the preceding story (1) as a result of a spiritual vision and (2) as a means of escaping from depression. More, the narrator explicitly refuses the idea that they have the omniscience required to know the story they’ve just told, undermining the sense of certainty that Machine has spent the rest of its length establishing, and restoring a view of the universe in which human imagination is central. Clearly Adolphsen felt it would be something like dishonest to pretend to any other view, but on first reading, I found the shift unwelcome – the last twenty pages or so, which have the feel of a reassurance that endings are real and meaningful, and even imbue the speck with something like a sense of destiny, seemed to sit uneasily with earlier insistences that “Death exists, but only in a practical, macroscopic sense” (10), and that stuff is never created or destroyed, merely transformed from one state to another. On reflection, I think if anything it reinforces the distance between the human scale and the broader story the book tells: because for humans, of course, endings are not just real and meaningful, but inevitable.