The Soft Machine consists of seventeen relatively brief chapters, or routines. (Most are fewer than ten pages: the longest is a little over twenty pages.) Each routine contains both improvisational narrative episodes sim- ilar in style to the satirical fantasies of Naked Lunch and cutup material. The narrative episodes within routines, however, are usually much briefer than those in Naked Lunch. The shorter narrative passages in combination with cutup collage passages make up a highly fragmented work in which the juxtaposition technique dominates the consciousness of the reader. The book must be read slowly and carefully, like a poem, and one must focus on imagery, theme, and associative relationships, rather than on chronological -causal structures.
Much more than Naked Lunch, the effect of The Soft Machine is kaleidoscopic, and the order of the routines seems even more arbitrary.The Soft Machine, however, is not entirely a random collection of fragments. Each routine does have general thematic unity, and each is related to the book's major theme: the social control of mankind throughout human history by the manipulation of bodily needs. The novel's thesis is conveyed in two ways: through image clusters that create thematic emphasis and through specific fantasies that receive emphasis because of narrative coherence and length.
As in Naked Lunch, sexuality, drugs, and power are the three types of control, but The Soft Machine gives different emphasis to these themes and also adds the theme of revolt.Sexuality as a means of social control is the major theme of The Soft Machine, leading to a predominance of sexual scenes and Burroughs's repertoire of sexual imagery: memories and fantasies of adolescent homosexual and autoerotic experiences, travel South, South American people and places, tropical climate (warmth, humidity, steaminess), plant life (especially jungles, vines, plant juice and slime), primitive and amorphous life forms (jelly, slime, protoplasm, tissue), water (rivers, mud, showers), refuse (mud, sewage, garbage, slime, compost heaps), odors of decomposiition, the carnival (penny arcades, Interzone-like carnival cities of sexual activity), the withdrawal orgasm, and the orgasm-death of hanging or other torture. This imagery is drawn from personal experience, popular cultural stereotypes, and literary tradition (in particular, Burroughs includes in cutup form the city and water imagery from The Waste Land). Characterization in The Soft Machine is so minimal that characters become motifs rather than persons. Characters associated with the sexual theme are drawn from autobiography (memories and personal fantasies), anthropological fantasy (imaginary South American tribes with unusual sexual practices; Carl the traveler), historical fantasy Uohnny Yen-the transsexual Survival Artist of the ages, the Countess de Vile-the decadent jetsetter, ancient priests serving the Corn God and the Earth Mother), the science-fiction Nova mythology (the Venus Mob, the Vegetable People, the Green Boys), and other literature (Danny Deever, Melville's Billy Budd, the hanged god of T. S.
Eliot).Control through drugs receives less emphasis than sexuality, but the imagery of the addict world and the metaphor of addiction are important secondary motifs. The Soft Machine includes the familiar imagery of junk neighborhoods, possession by an evil force, downward metamorphosis, versions of the Algebra of Need, and various addict-hustlers (Lee, the Sailor, Johnny, Bill, Bill Gains, Benway, Green Tony). The color blue, heavy metal, the smell of ozone, coldness, and a "blue" note are junk images that link the theme of addiction to the Uranians of the Nova mythology.
Finally, the narrator of The Soft Machine consistently assumes the persona of the hustler-storyteller of the carny world, whether he plays the role of conman, Nova criminal, or Nova agent. Thus the vision and the voice of the carny world permeate the novel even though drug addiction is not its ma'or subject, and this persona has the same reductive and satirical effect as in Naked Lunch.The theme of power is primarily conveyed through narrative fantasy. The Soft Machine contains five relatively sustained fantasies, which, because of their length and coherence as narratives amid so much cutup material, dominate the reader's interpretation of the text.
All five of these narratives are dystopian fantasies, each one taking place in a different period of human history. It is these dystopias that give The Soft Machine its historical emphasis, and the following analysis will discuss them chronologically although they do not appear in chronological order in the text. In fact, the fantasy that is earliest in time is actually placed at the end of the book.In "Cross the Wounded Galaxies," the last routine of The Soft Machine, Burroughs invents a story of how mankind began: his creation.