The Soft Machine

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The Soft Machine
First edition
Author William S. Burroughs
CountryUnited States
Series The Nova Trilogy
Publisher Olympia Press
Publication date

The Soft Machine is a 1961 novel by American author William S. Burroughs. It was originally composed using the cut-up technique partly from manuscripts belonging to The Word Hoard . It is the first part of The Nova Trilogy .

Novel narrative text, normally of a substantial length and in the form of prose describing a fictional and sequential story

A novel is a relatively long work of narrative fiction, normally written in prose form, and which is typically published as a book.

William S. Burroughs American novelist, short story writer, essayist, painter, and spoken word performer

William Seward Burroughs II was an American writer and visual artist. Burroughs was a primary figure of the Beat Generation and a major postmodernist author whose influence is considered to have affected a range of popular culture as well as literature. Burroughs wrote eighteen novels and novellas, six collections of short stories and four collections of essays. Five books have been published of his interviews and correspondences. He also collaborated on projects and recordings with numerous performers and musicians, and made many appearances in films. He was also briefly known by the pen name William Lee. Burroughs created and exhibited thousands of paintings and other visual art works, including his celebrated 'Gunshot Paintings'.

The cut-up technique is an aleatory literary technique in which a written text is cut up and rearranged to create a new text. The concept can be traced to at least the Dadaists of the 1920s, but was popularized in the late 1950s and early 1960s by writer William S. Burroughs, and has since been used in a wide variety of contexts.


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 added to the 1968, British edition) concerns how control mechanisms invade the body.

The book is written in a style close to that of Naked Lunch , employing third-person singular indirect recall, though now using the cut-up method.

<i>Naked Lunch</i> novel by William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch is a novel by American writer William S. Burroughs, originally published in 1959. The book is structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes. Burroughs stated that the chapters are intended to be read in any order. The reader follows the narration of junkie William Lee, who takes on various aliases, from the U.S. to Mexico, eventually to Tangier and the dreamlike Interzone.

After the main material follow three appendices in the British edition, 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.

Apomorphine chemical compound

Apomorphine (brand names Apokyn, Ixense, Spontane, Uprima) is a type of aporphine having activity as a non-selective dopamine agonist which activates both D2-like and, to a much lesser extent, D1-like receptors. It also acts as an antagonist of 5-HT2 and α-adrenergic receptors with high affinity. The compound is historically a morphine decomposition product made by boiling morphine with concentrated acid, hence the -morphine suffix. Apomorphine does not actually contain morphine or its skeleton, nor does it bind to opioid receptors. The apo- prefix relates to it being a morphine derivative ("[comes] from morphine").

Plot summary

The main plot appears in linear prose in chapter VII, The Mayan Caper. This chapter portrays a secret agent 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 laborers 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 causes the downfall of their regime.

Time travel is the concept of movement between certain points in time, analogous to movement between different points in space by an object or a person, typically using a hypothetical device known as a time machine. Time travel is a widely-recognized concept in philosophy and fiction. The idea of a time machine was popularized by H. G. Wells' 1895 novel The Time Machine.

Maya civilization Mesoamerican civilization

The Maya civilization was a Mesoamerican civilization developed by the Maya peoples, and noted for its logosyllabic script—the most sophisticated and highly developed writing system in pre-Columbian Americas—as well as for its art, architecture, mathematics, calendar, and astronomical system. The Maya civilization developed in an area that encompasses southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador. This region consists of the northern lowlands encompassing the Yucatán Peninsula, and the highlands of the Sierra Madre, running from the Mexican state of Chiapas, across southern Guatemala and onwards into El Salvador, and the southern lowlands of the Pacific littoral plain.

Maya calendar system of calendars used in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

The Maya calendar is a system of calendars used in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and in many modern communities in the Guatemalan highlands, Veracruz, Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico.


The characters of the Soft Machine fall into three categories:

Henry Kuttner American author

Henry Kuttner was an American author of science fiction, fantasy and horror.

Jack Black (author) author

Jack Black (1871–1932) was a hobo and professional burglar. Born in 1871 near Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, he was raised from infancy in the U.S. state of Missouri. He wrote You Can't Win, a memoir or sketched autobiography describing his days on the road and life as an outlaw. Black's book was written as an anti-crime book urging criminals to go straight, but it is also his statement of belief in the futility of prisons and the criminal justice system, hence the title of the book. Jack Black was writing from experience, having spent thirty years as a traveling criminal and offers tales of being a cross-country stick-up man, home burglar, petty thief, and opium fiend. He gained fame through association with William S. Burroughs, and his writings had a profound effect on the writings and lives of all the Beat Generation.

Rudyard Kipling English short-story writer, poet, and novelist

Joseph Rudyard Kipling was an English journalist, short-story writer, poet, and novelist. He was born in India, which inspired much of his work.


The Soft Machine has been printed in four different editions, the first three revised by the author, the last by Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris.

  1. The first edition was printed by Olympia Press in Paris, in 1961, as number 88 in the Traveller Companion Series. It featured 182 pages arranged in 50 chapters of about 8 pages each. This edition was colour-coded into four different Units, and it was heavily fragmented. This edition is rare and the text is not widely available. [1]
  2. The second edition was printed by Grove Press in the United States, in 1966. In this edition, Burroughs removed 82 pages and inserted 82 new pages, and the remaining 100 pages were rearranged and restructured using further cut-ups. Much of the added material was linear, narrative prose, which is arguably easier to read than the disorganized first edition. Many chapters were renamed and rearranged in this edition, and the colour 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 they began at more natural places in the text, whereas the second edition could place them in the middle of a sentence. The chapter 1920s War Movies was renamed The Streets of Chance. Twenty pages of new material had been added, plus about eight pages from the first edition which had been removed in the second edition. About five pages of material which was present in both the first and second edition was removed. This edition also included an "Appendix" and "Afterword".
  4. The fourth 'Restored' edition was printed by Grove Press in the United States in 2014. Drawing on the discovery of a manuscript of The Soft Machine that was to have been published by Olympia Press in 1963, this edition restores a short cancelled chapter ('Male Image Back In'), restores the 1961 edition's heavy use of capital letters, and has some different chapter breaks. The edition also includes an introduction, extensive notes and appendices.

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 the balance of cut-up and more linear material. However, his revised editions included much new cut-up material as well as more conventional prose.

Obscenity controversy

The novel was subject to an obscenity trial in Turkey in 2011. Sel Yayıncılık and the novel's Turkish translator faced obscenity charges after the release of the book, due to alleged "incompliance with moral norms" and “hurting people’s moral feelings.” [2] [3] Sel Yayıncılık and the books’ translators face three more years of uncertainty after the judge pronounced that the trial would be postponed until 2015, due to the implementation of new legislation. Meanwhile, the judge warned that if either of the publishing houses or the translators were foolish enough to publish further ‘obscene’ works, these cases would be added to the charge sheet. [4] [5] [6]


English rock and jazz band Soft Machine, from Canterbury, named themselves after the book, when they formed in mid-1966.

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  1. Barry Miles. Ch. 7, "Cut-ups". El Hombre Invisible: William S. Burroughs: A Portrait, 2002 edition. p124.
  2. Flood, Alison (May 17, 2011). "William Burroughs publisher faces obscenity charges in Turkey". The Guardian . Retrieved February 18, 2013.
  3. Torchia, Christopher (May 16, 2011). "Istanbul Publisher Faces Obscenity Trial For Releasing William S. Burroughs Novel "The Soft Machine"". The Huffington Post . Retrieved February 18, 2013.
  4. Flood, Alison (August 2, 2012). "William Burroughs' Turkish publishers' obscenity trial postponed". The Guardian . Retrieved February 18, 2013.
  5. "Müstehcenlik davası Guardian'a taşındı (The obscenity trial was carried out to The Guardian)" (in Turkish). Milliyet. August 4, 2012. Retrieved February 18, 2013.
  6. Büsch, Thomas. "Cut-Ups in memory of William S. Burroughs". InEnArt. Retrieved February 5, 2014.