Author Patrick Somerville does strange things with his short story collection The Universe in Miniature in Miniature. Taking science fiction conventions, such as a sunless apocalypse to dystopias of future colleges majoring in bizarre studies, he finds ways to manipulate and apply tropes well defined in the field of science fiction. His contemporary take and love connections throughout many stories may throw readers off the scent of typical soft science fiction, and certainly not hard science fiction.
However, one story in particular seethes with originality in the science fiction realm. “The Machine of Understanding Other People” takes a unique look at human emotion through the lens of a mystical device, and Somerville uses intense detail, coupled with strange imagery to make readers empathize with main character Tom Sanderson.
The significance of Somerville’s machine is not merely the originality, but the allegory of giving one hundred percent of one’s attention to another human being. Communication between human beings is limited to only observing behavioral and verbal cues. The examination of undivided attention becomes more apparent in contemporary novels, as many romantic endeavors focus on specific body language imagery. Somerville uses Tom in this manner, “Then Tom stood at the foot of his bed, naked, helmet on. Stick pointing. Katherine, asleep, flowing into him. What he felt was unbearable, alien sadness of this woman’s history – or maybe her perception of her own history.” (Somerville 274).
Perhaps the more appropriate trope to examine would be that of ESP/mind-reading abilities in regard to how Tom analyzes his romantic interest. Like Herbie in Asimov’s Liar!, “It reads minds all right – damn little doubt about that! But why?” (Asimov 282). In reading the mind of another, there is a great deal to examine regarding not only thoughts, but emotions as well. Tom sees the thoughts regarding Katherine’s personal history, but argues that they may only be her own perception of how the event occurred. In relation to Liar! Herbie, being a robot, finds the thoughts of humans to be filled with content and not emotion. Thus, Herbie’s mistaken interpretation of Dr. Calvin’s romantic endeavors violates the first law of robotics by emotionally harming a human. Somerville’s human stakes make Tom feel more connected with Katherine, which as a constant depressive, emphasizes his character development. “And really, it wasn’t quite so bad and desolate as that- he did have a mind-blowing orgasm – and you didn’t always happen to point the thing towards deep depression.” (Somerville 275).
Though Tom’s own depression rules him, the machine shows him the happiness of others instead of just the sadness. Much like overcoming a difficult time, Tom sees the lighter side of things will come himself, mirroring the discovery of the self in times of trial. This teaches the reader that happiness is not in merely others, but yourself as well.
The machine of understanding other people itself takes the form of a very common element of science fiction. The use of scientific devices for fantastic functioning rallies throughout many stories. The most common example of a science fictionally conventional machine is of course the time machine. Functionality of the time machine is often explained in physicist’s terms, “Because time would pass at different rates at the two ends of the wormhole, anyone falling into one end of the wormhole would be instantly hurled into the past or the future.” (Kaku 700).
Somerville’s take on the use of engineering to go into the human conscious takes intense steps ahead into the realm of technology. The functionality of the device is never fully explained, but merely described: “Dappled across the curved top and sides of the helmet, there are oddly shaped, apparently articulated antennae and sensors of some kind.” (Somerville 259). Rather than explaining the functionality, Somerville uses the character’s own emotional experience to illustrate the events. Tom’s depression and inability to find happiness is brought insight not by the machine itself but by the ability to see another human being for who they are, or think they are, instead of what he wants them for. “He realized early on that despite the strangeness of experiencing another person and despite the wicked empathy hangover, it was a good feeling, too.” (Somerville 275). The controlled sadness of human depression can only be cured by the human experience. Though time isn’t what’s at play, Somerville uses machinery as a portal into the human mind, thus emphasizing the importance of understanding the human experience.
Perhaps one of Somerville’s flagship creations, Pangea University represents not only the dream of Eliza in “The Machine of Understanding Other People,” but also the topic of an earlier story regarding students at the university in question. In relation to conventional science fiction elements, the concept of a utopia can take many forms. “As commonly used, the word utopia refers to an ideal society, a harmonious community that reflects a set of values about how people should live and what it takes to be truly happy.” (Masri 702).
Somerville’s take on the utopia would of course be Pangea University, referencing the once united land mass of all earth’s continents. Eliza, Tom’s distant relative, idealizes Pangea as a goal and dream to better society. Somerville essentially defines that of a utopia from the eyes of Eliza: “But she was 24 years old when she began to design it, focused on spending her life doing something to make the world slightly better instead of slightly worse, and thus unencumbered by anything resembling real experience in the world or a real understanding of human suffering beyond the struggles and experiences of her own young life.” (Somerville 254).
Eliza’s ideal college takes the contemporary university and incorporates the whimsy of a free university with strange majors to play on the utopian aspect for young people to develop much like our own university. Her dream is to create a world better than that already established and Pangea, as a free university, gives even the oppressed an opportunity to follow their dreams. Somerville’s ideal university obviously appeals to college students for the relatable nature, while playing on the bizarre aspects via Eliza’s own thoughts, “Pangea had always been her secret, her private joke on the world. Wouldn’t it be interesting if this existed, or if this were true?” (Somerville 255). Somerville’s take on the utopia as a university creates something original and challenges that of past utopias/dystopias in the contemporary setting. His use of Eliza’s self-parody also takes a new form of describing the utopian world, and as a satire of the trope itself.
Somerville’s collection, The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, takes a contemporary look at science fiction as well as experimental forms including Vonnegut-like doodles and images. Throughout his story “The Machine of Understanding Other People,” Somerville’s take on common science fiction tropes elaborates and expands on their significance and what’s at stake in the contemporary world. Using a device from the realm of the fantastic, Somerville takes a closer look at ESP and just exactly what the human mind holds, not just how one person perceives it. The device itself reminds us that the marvels of science will continue to improve not only our communication, but the understanding of what it means to be human.
With Pangea University, Somerville looks forward to a future of costless colleges and hope that humanity will continue to learn and develop as a species. “The Machine of Understanding Other People” comes to breathe originality into the use of conventions like machinery, mind-reading, and utopias as devices to not only link humanity further, but to examine what exactly it means to be human in an often depressive world.
Asimov, Isaac. "Liar!" Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts. Ed. Heather Masri. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009. N. pag. Print.
Kaku, Michio. "To Build a Time Machine." Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts. Ed. Heather Masri. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009. N. pag. Print.
Somerville, Patrick. "The Machine of Understanding Other People." The Universe in Miniature in Miniature. Chicago, IL: Featherproof, 2010. N. pag. Print.
"Utopias and Dystopias." Introduction. Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts. Ed. Heather Masri. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009. 702. Print.