The science behind Michael Swanwick’s “The Very Pulse of the Machine”
Michael Swanwick originally published the short story in 1998. I had never heard of it until I watched the animated series “Love, Death, and Robots”. After watching the show, I decided to read the book and write my own interpretation. I’m not a Sci-Fi expert, but the story is so fascinating that it’s worth exploring.
This article covers detailed information about the original short story as well as the animated adaptation of the Netflix series “Love, Death, and Robots (S3-E3)”. If you have already read the book or watched the animation, the article will help to relate to the story.
For reference, I would like to describe the basics of Jupiter and Io. This will help you understand the context better. Jupiter has 53 named moons and another 26 awaiting official names. Combined, scientists now think Jupiter has 79 moons. Io is the fourth-largest moon in the Solar System, has the highest density, and has the strongest surface gravity of any moon.
Orbit and Rotation
Io’s orbit, keeping it at more or less a cozy 262,000 miles from Jupiter, cuts across the planet’s powerful magnetic lines of force, thus turning Io into an electric generator. Io can develop 400,000 volts across itself and create an electric current of 3 million amperes.
Surface and Atmospheric Composition
Sulfur and Sulfur dioxide (90%) is the primary constituent of a thin atmosphere on Io. It has no water to speak of, unlike the other, colder Galilean moons. Data from the Galileo spacecraft indicates that an iron core may form Io’s center, thus giving Io its own magnetic field.
As Jupiter rotates, it takes its magnetic field around with it, sweeping past Io and stripping off about 1 ton (1,000 kilograms) of Io’s material every second. This material becomes ionized in the magnetic field and forms a doughnut-shaped cloud of intense radiation referred to as a plasma torus.
Now that we have some background knowledge let’s start the exploration.
The story begins with an exploratory expedition of two astronauts (Martha Kivelsen and Juliet Burton) on their journey to Jupiter’s moon Io. They were about to cross the Daedalus Patera volcano when the rover showed a temperature spike. Burton assumed it might be the sulfur eruption brewing from the volcano. But before she could strap in her seat belt, a large earthquake cracked the ground beneath them, crashing their moon rover against a massive boulder. Marhta was strapped into her seat tightly, so the impact didn’t cause any significant harm other than a broken arm. On the other hand, Burton got thrown into a strut that punched a hole in her helmet, causing a brutal death. Martha discovered that the tank they used to replenish their air packs had ruptured. She decided to create a sledge for Burton’s body to utilize all oxygen. Martha continues dragging Burton through the rough terrain, hoping to reach the lander before her oxygen supply runs out.
When she checked her visor map, it showed about forty-five miles remaining to reach the destination. She felt miserable about the situation and the death of her partner, but she had to concentrate on the task at hand and keep moving. She made some good progress, but It was becoming impossible to move any further due to exhaustion. So she decided to take the Amphetamine drug to boost her cognitive and physical performance.
Side Note: Amphetamine
Amphetamine has powerful central nervous system (CNS) stimulant actions that function by increasing the amounts of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin (to a lesser extent) in the synaptic cleft through a variety of mechanisms.
But the drug comes with a trade-off, including loss of motor function, hallucinations, and euphoria.
Interesting Fact: The TV series mentioned the use of Amphetamine, whereas the original story mentioned the use of Methamphetamine. Methamphetamine has effects similar to Amphetamine, although CNS effects are more pronounced and peripheral ones are less prominent.
Once the drug was in effect, Martha found herself full of energy and increased visual clarity. On the contrary, she starts to hallucinate about her surroundings. For instance, walking through a shadowy sculpture garden, scattered volcanic pillars, and dancing women figures. Most importantly, she discovers her dead partner is somehow trying to communicate with her. Burton’s voice echoes through, reciting poetry and seeing various images.
“Voyaging through strange eons of thoughts and trying to communicate”
“Io’s metallic core generates a magnetic field that punches a hole in Jupiter’s magnetosphere, and also creates a high-energy ion flux tube connecting its own poles with the north and south poles of Jupiter. What does this sound like?”
“Io sweeps up and absorbs all the electrons in the million-volt range. Its volcanoes pump out sulfur dioxide; its magnetic field breaks down a percentage of that into sulfur and oxygen ions; and these ions are pumped into the hole punched in the magnetosphere, creating a rotating field commonly called the Io torus. What does this sound like?”
“Torus. Flux tube. Magnetosphere. Volcanoes. Sulfur ions. Molten ocean. Tidal heating. Circular orbit. What does this sound like?”
“It sounds… Sounds like… Like a machine.”
“Yes. Yes, machine. I am machine.”
So an exhausted person with an Amphetamine overdose heard a voice from a dead person? Was she hallucinating? Could oxygen deprivation boost the effect more? Although, there’s no guarantee that the lack of oxygen may have caused hallucination.
Martha directed her helmet to show the electromagnetic spectrum, and something magical happened.
Side Note: Electromagnetic Spectrum
Electromagnetic energy travels in waves and spans a broad spectrum from very long radio waves to very short gamma rays. Humans are unable to register anything outside of the visual portion of this spectrum. The electromagnetic spectrum is the term used by scientists to describe the entire range of light that exists.
She was able to see things that her bare eye couldn’t see before.
The land before her flickered once, then lit up in fairyland colors. Pale oceans of light overlaying light, shifting between pastels, from faded rose to boreal blue, multilayered, labyrinthine, and all pulsing gently within the heart of the sulfur rock. Glowing lines veined the warping wings of subterranean electromagnetic forces. Almost like circuit wires. They crisscrossed the plains in all directions, combining and then converging — not upon her, but in a nexus at the sled. Burton’s corpse was lit up like neon. Her head, packed in sulfur dioxide snow, strobed and stuttered with light so rapidly that it shone like the sun.
If you read the quotes from Burton, she referred to the term triboelectricity. There is a physical mechanism behind this.
Side Note: Triboelectricity
Triboelectricity refers to the electrification of dissimilar objects or materials that occurred due to the collision resulting in the phenomenal flow of electrons from one material to another balancing the potential difference. The process of rubbing materials against each other increases surface contact, producing an electric charge called the triboelectric effect.
Martha was dragging Burton’s body for a long time. Sulfur was triboelectric. Which meant that it built up a charge when rubbed. We can also confirm this in the animated series where electric sparks were building up when she dragged the sledge. When she turned on the electromagnetic spectrum, everything was visible. It created a pathway with the dead partner’s semi-intact brain through the cracked hole in the mask. Language is data. Radio is medium. The whole Io was an electrical phenomenon, working like a machine, one giant robot. If Io is a triboelectric alien device the size of Earth’s moon and built by monstrous aliens, there must be some purpose for this. It’s able to communicate with her. A lot could be done with electricity.
In the end, we see two versions of the story.
The original story says Martha was very close to the lander with enough oxygen to reach the destination. It was a thermal lake of sulfur. But the lander was gone before she could make it.
The animated series shows Burton physically carrying Martha to her destination. But instead of reaching the destination, she left her at the same thermal lake.
Interesting fact: We can see the footprints of two persons at the edge of the lake. There must be someone who came to this place with Martha.
Either way, Martha ends up at the same lake. A lake of the molten electromagnetic spectrum at a very high temperature. When Martha asked Io if Burton had jumped into the lake, Io replied yes. Io also encouraged her to follow Burton and jump in. Io gave Martha almost no choice but to trick her into joining Io’s ever-expanding consciousness. When Martha asked, If you’re a machine, what is your function? Why were you made? Io replied:
“To know you. To love you. And to serve you.
You are. Creator. Of machine.”
Martha quickly remembered Burton’s long reminiscences on her Catholic girlhood. That was a paraphrase of the answer to the first question in the old Baltimore Catechism: Why did God make the man? Maybe Burton’s brain is using her instinct from a religious perspective. Io is seemingly unable to distinguish between mobile intelligent organisms and thinks that Martha is its creator. Or maybe Io wanted to explore her mind.
Io claimed that if she threw herself in the lake, it would be able to absorb her, duplicate her neural patterning, and so restore her to life. A transformed sort of life, but life nonetheless. Her physical configuration will be destroyed, but the Neural configuration may be preserved.
It could be Burton was already halfway-merged into the oceanic mind of Io, and awaiting her to join in an alchemical marriage of personalities. Maybe I’m going to live forever. Or maybe this is just one last dream.
She decided to jump. Her entire body combusts and causes a chain reaction. As the moon erupts in brilliant golden light.
In the animated series, we see a satellite in orbit of the moon arrive, allowing the Io version of Martha to begin communicating with those on Earth. Martha’s voice bleeds through:
“Earth station come in, this is Martha Kivelson”
It’s unclear if her consciousness lived in the Io or not. But since we see the voice coming through, Martha’s neural configuration must be alive. Besides, in the animation, the footprint near the lake suggests that Io resurrected Burton’s body to carry Martha through the transformation process. I couldn’t find any logic behind Burton’s resurrection, but I believe it’s possible to convert the neural configuration with alien technology or by the nature of Io itself. Some suggest that Io could take her to the lander, but Io wanted Martha to live forever inside the machine to turn it into a conscious entity, just like Burton.
The ending remains ambiguous, she might be hallucinating, but it’s up to the readers to make assumptions and conclusions on this.