Machine is a curious, quirky novella that sends the reader on a journey through time and space, asking some big questions along the way. At the core of this brief minimalist text are the questions of human (and animal) destiny and how we perceive the workings of the universe. The story, for all its strange turns, is pretty simple: a prehistoric horse gets caught in a storm, falls into a lake, and drowns. Its body sinks to the bottom, becomes fossilized, and is eventually converted to oil. As oil worker Jimmy Nash is working at an oil rig in Utah, his arm gets severed in an accident while the drop of oil that was the horse’s heart races through the pipes. This drop is turned into gasoline, and as a young woman picks up Jimmy, now a hitchhiker, it combusts as fuel.
While we learn the backstories of these three figures—from a conventional immigrant story to a stranger narrative told from the point of view of a horse—what connects them all is this drop of oil. But what about the oil connects them? Is it the power to cause misfortune, as it implies the death of the horse and coincides with Jimmy’s accident? Or is it the potential to spawn new connections, as the horse’s death indirectly leads to a new friendship between Clarissa and Jimmy?
While Adolphsen’s text gives us an apt description of how all this happens, he leaves it up to us to decide how it happened. Is it all chance? Or is there, as the title implies, some greater quality to the universe that fits all these events together into some cohesive whole? Is the universe just a cold, dark world of coincidences or is there something more, a ghost in the machine? “In biological terms an organism never exists as an isolated phenomenon, but must be understood as a function that resolves the issue of survival of a particular species in time and space. Structure, function and life conditions are symbiotic and evolve in an ever-changing game,” Adolphsen points out.
Machine reminds us that our deterministic explanations for the way the world works often fail to satisfy us: we refuse to consider life to be a series of simple neuron firings, and we continually deny that love is a product of hormones and genes. What makes this fairly trite point unique in this novella is Adolphsen’s blending of science and fictional narrative, which paints both a physical and metaphysical portrait of the mechanics of the universe. His dry, clear, and humane tone—think how academics should write—is never preachy, and despite the weirdness of his tale, Adolphsen makes it sensible and accessible.
That being said, Machine makes for dry reading. Its ideas are lively but its writing is not, and reading it feels a bit like homework. There is little besides ideas in this scant work, leading the character history sections to be interesting only because they are a break from philosophy (though not particularly well-crafted). While Machine probably shouldn’t be any longer than it is less it become some pseudo-philosophical epic monster, it may have sacrificed too much on the altar of minimalism. While in places charming and intellectually stimulating, it fails to accomplish what minimalist prose aspires to: to tell more with less. Instead, Machine just tells less, dangerously resting on its take-it-or-leave-it philosophical stances.