The Soft Machine  

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"I was working the hole with the sailor and we did not do bad. Fifteen cents on an average night boosting the afternoons and short-timing the dawn we made out from the land of the free. In the Calder version it is a little more free-flowing: I was working the hole with the Sailor and we did not bad fifteen cents on average night boosting the afternoons and short timing the dawn we made out from the land of the free but I was running out of veins ..."

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
For the rock band named after this book, see Soft Machine

The Soft Machine is the title of a novel by William S. Burroughs, first published in 1961 and was Burroughs' first novel after the groundbreaking publication of Naked Lunch. It was originally composed using the cut-up and fold-in techniques from manuscripts.


Title and structure

The title The Soft Machine is a name for the human body, and the main theme of the book (as explicitly written in an appendix) concerns how control mechanisms invade the body.

The book is written in a style close to that of Naked Lunch utilizing the cut-up method to an even greater degree.

It is further quite easy to identify passages borrowed and cut in from the work of two other authors: The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot and The Tempest by William Shakespeare.

After the main material follow three appendices, the first explaining the title (as mentioned above) and two accounts of Burroughs' own drug abuse and treatment using apomorphine. Here Burroughs clearly states that he considers drug abuse a metabolic disease and writes about how he finally escaped it.

Plot summary

The main plot (which is intermingled with other plots) appears in linear prose in chapter VII, The Mayan Caper. This chapter, which can even be read as a short story on its own, portrays a secret agent (presumably the same Bill Lee who appeared in Naked Lunch) who has the ability to change bodies or metamorphose his own body using "U.T." (undifferentiated tissue). As such an agent he makes a time travel machine and takes on a gang of Mayan priests who use the Mayan calendar to control the minds of slave labourers used for planting maize. The calendar images are written in books and placed on a magnetic tape and transmitted as sounds to control the slaves. The agent manages to infiltrate the slaves and replace the magnetic tape with a totally different message: "burn the books, kill the priests" which cause the downfall of their regime. The techniques used for changing bodies involves several chemical, biological and sexual magic-like practices and many things can go wrong.


The characters of The Soft Machine fall into three categories:

  • Characters from the previous novel Naked Lunch: Dr Benway, Clem Snide, Sailor, Bill Gains and Kiki.
  • Characters associated with the Nova mythology:
    • The Nova Mob: Mr Bradley Mr Martin, Johnny Yen, Sammy The Butcher, Green Tony, Izzy the Push
    • The Nova Police: Inspector Lee, Hassan i Sabbah, agent K9, The Subliminal Kid, Technical Tilly
  • Characters recycled from the work of other authors:


The Soft Machine has been printed in no fewer than three different editions, each time revised by the author.

  1. The first edition was printed by Olympia Press in Paris, 1961 as number 88 in the Traveller Companion Series and featured 182 pages arranged in 50 chapters of about 8 pages each. This edition was color coded into four different chunks and very fragmentaric.
  2. The second edition was printed by Grove Press in the United States, 1966. In this edition, Burroughs removed 82 pages and inserted 82 new pages, and the remaining 100 pages had been rearranged and restructured using further cut-ups. Much of the added material was linear, narrative prose, which is arguably a lot easier to read than the very disorganized first edition. Many chapters were renamed and rearranged in this edition, and the color code from the first edition was removed.
  3. The third edition was printed by John Calder in Great Britain, 1968. This time most chapter titles were intact from the second edition, but will begin at more natural places in the text, whereas the second edition could place them in the middle of a sentence. The chapter 1920ies War Movies has been renamed The Streets of Chance. 20 pages of new material had been added, plus circa 8 pages from the first edition which had previously been removed in the second edition. About 5 pages of material which was present in both the first and second edition was removed. This edition also included an "Appendix" and "Afterword".

Burroughs himself was very displeased with the first edition and this was the main reason for rewriting it so thoroughly: in 1961 he wrote to his friend Allen Ginsberg that he rewrote it extensively while he was working on Dead Fingers Talk, mostly because he was displeased with bad cut-ups and introduced linear material to replace it. In a letter to John Calder he claims that he intended the appendix to be published in Playboy Magazine as a promotional device for the book.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Soft Machine" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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