Science Fiction Studies

#2 = Volume 1, Part 2 = Fall 1973

Robert Plank

Quixote's Mills: The Man-Machine Encounter in SF

The hazy border area between living and non-living beings or structures, especially if these are artifacts, is one of the great themes of fantasy and more particularly of SF. We can view it more clearly by approaching it from the outside, though a work that cannot be considered as either--Don Quixote.1

Though in writing his "marvelous history" Cervantes created a model for the modern realistic novel, the work does not owe its wide fame to its realism; on the contrary, to the element of fantasy in it. But we must see clearly that fantasy here resides in the mind of the hero, while the world that Cervantes presents directly is strictly the real world. The contrast is most glaring in one famous episode, Quixote's fight with the windmills:

At this point they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills ... and as soon as Don Quixote saw them he said to his squire, "Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped our desires ourselves, for look here, friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous giants present themselves, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall begin to make our fortunes; for this is righteous warfare, and it is God's good service to sweep so evil a breed from off the face of the earth."

"What giants?" said Sancho Panza.

"Those thou seest there," answered his master, "with the long arms. . . .

"Look, your worship," said Sancho: "what we see there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the sails that turned by the wind make the millstone go."

"It is easy to see," replied Don Quixote, "that thou art not used to this business of adventure; those are giants; and if thou art afraid, away with thee out of this and betake thyself to prayer while I engage them in fierce and unequal combat."

So, invoking his lady Dulcinea, Quixote charges the "giants," shouting chivalrous insults. A breeze springs up, the mills begin to turn:

as he drove his lance point into the sail the wind whirled it around with such force that it shivered the lance to pieces, sweeping with it horse and rider, who went rolling over the plain, in a sorry plight. Sancho hastened to his assistance as fast as his ass would go. . .

and is so upset that he forgets his manners:

"Didn't I tell your worship. . .they were only windmills? And no one could have made any mistake about it but one who had something of the same kind in his head."

Don Quixote has his answer ready: "That same Friston who carried off my study and my books has turned these giants into mills to rob me of the glory of vanquishing them." (§1:8).

This is probably by far the most popular passage in Don Quixote. Why should this be so? I cannot think of any explanation but the obvious one: we have here a confrontation of man and machine, one of the earliest in literature, and one of the most perfect. Let us look at some aspects of it.

First, a popular misconception: people often seem to think that Quixote's folly is shown in his misinterpreting such a simple, old-fashioned, and evidently familiar device. But even the old-fashioned was new at one time, and in the case of the windmills, this was just about Cervantes' time. Commentators have noted that windmills were first erected in La Mancha thirty years or less before Don Quixote was written.2 That means, we have the motif here already in its modern form: the confrontation with a new technology.

Furthermore, windmills clearly are in rotary motion, as indeed machines so far usually are. How much significance should we attach to, this point? Mumford makes much of the contrast between rotary and reciprocating motion; Santillana has also considered the subject.3 Reciprocating motion is the natural action of man's muscles4 while rotary motion is virtually unknown in nature -- on Earth, that is: the movements of the heavenly bodies are rotary. This is so uniformly true that the appearance of comets, which seem not to be in rotary motion, used to be seen as a sign of grave disturbance. It is conceivable that interest in the study of movements in the sky -- i.e., what was first astrology and later became astronomy -- developed as early as it did because men were somehow impressed with rotary motion. In fact, progress in astronomy was for centuries impeded by the firm belief, obstinately held until Kepler shattered it, that planets must move in circles.

It is equally conceivable that the owe in which mankind has held some of its own artifacts may spring from the observation that much of human technology--namely, that part of it that involves the wheel -- is based on rotary motion. It would seem, then, that in inventing the wheel man imitated not the nature he shares but the heavens. This is perhaps why the wheel has been linked with cosmic power in religious imagery. Though this is not as prevalent in Western as in Eastern thinking, we may recall that Dante concludes his work by evoking a wheel as symbol of finding peace and fulfillment in God.5

A test of this hypothesis is provided by modern technological developments. Rocketry and electronics are not based on the wheel the way mechanisms are. The feeling of alienation which has been one factor shaping man's relation to his machines since the industrial revolution should therefore yield to a more comfortable symbiosis as the new technology evolves. This is indeed the case. Modern SF has by preference featured post-mechanical technology and has come to prominence with its asendance.

Constructs of modern SF (e.g., HAL, the computer in 2001) may be equated with human beings because of their mental capabilities. They are not usually capable of man-like or animal-like physical movements. The core of Quixote's adventure, however, is clearly that he mistakes a mechanical device for a living being, and that he does so because he is mad. Yet his attack has also inspired outbursts like this:

The knight was right; fear, and fear alone, made Sancho and makes all of us poor mortals see windmills in the monstrous giants that sow evil through the world.... Fear ... alone inspires the cult and worship of steam and electricity, makes us fall on our knees and cry mercy before the monstrous giants of mechanics and chemistry. And at last, at the base of some colossal factory of elixir of long life, the human race, exhausted by weariness and surfeit, will give up the ghost. But the battered Don Quixote will live, because he sought health within himself, and dared to charge at windmills.6

Unamuno is speaking here of the significance of Quixote's attack. But the episode makes good sense on the literal level also. That it has caught the fancy of generation after generation can be best explained by assuming that its manifest content--the misperception of a technical artifact as a living being--has powerfully appealed to readers who increasingly, as technical development progressed, have faced the same dilemma. Far from viewing Quixote as a madman and hence incomprehensible, they must have felt that he acted on an impulse they shared but did not act upon. The chord that Cervantes struck has therefore never been silent since.

Some time elapsed, though, before the science of psychology got around to the subject. The first notable contribution was a short study by Jentsch, published in 1906, on the "uncanny feeling."7 The word "uncanny" has become the standard translation of the German "unheimlich," although such words as "weird," "sinister," "eerie" would also express certain shades of the meaning, for it is a complex feeling, not easily described.

It usually arises from an unexpected perception: an encounter felt at the same time as vaguely threatening, mysteriously alluring, and-paradoxically--both familiar and unfamiliar, in the sense, that it seems to pose a riddle: we feel faced with something unfamiliar which will, however, soon reveal itself as something familiar. It is an unpleasant feeling, but in a low key. Though akin to anxiety, fear, and even terror, it should not be identified with these.

How does the uncanny feeling arise? Jentsch put forth the hypothesis that it is evoked by "Mental uncertainty," and particularly by "doubt of the animation of an apparently living being, and vice versa doubt whether a lifeless object is not perhaps animated; and this even if that doubt has become only dimly conscious." It is clear that SF is deeply engaged here. Jentsch's specifications would apply with special force to automata and robots. In more sensitive minds, almost any machinery would stimulate similar feelings, as witnessed by the German poet Heine, describing a trip to England in 1837:

The perfection of the machines which are used here everywhere and have taken over so many human activities, had for me also something uncanny. This artificial motion of wheels, rods, cylinders, and a thousand little hooks, pins, and teeth, all moving almost passionately, filled me with shudder. That the life of the English is so defined, precise, measured, and punctual, caused me as much anxiety. As the machines in England appear to us human, so the people there seem like machines. Indeed, wood, steel, and brass seem to have usurped the spirit of man and from fullness of spirit to have gone almost mad, while the dispirited man, like a hollow spectre, goes mechanically about his business and has certain hours set aside to wolf his steaks, to make speeches in Parliament, to brush his nails, to board a stage coach, and to hang himself.8

This passage is evidently spiced with sexual imagery, as though Heine were saying that those "passionate" movements struck him as uncanny because of their similarity to the sex act--a testimony of some value since it evidently arose independent of psychoanalysis: he died the year Freud was born.

Jentsch himself used such examples as the reaction of savages who see a locomotive for the first time and mistake it for a monstrous mammal, but also an episode from a classic tale of SF and fantasy,9 namely the figure of Olympia in E.T.A. Hoffmann's novella The Sandman. Olympia is an automaton whose maker passes it off as his daughter. The motif has caught on sufficiently to be used in popular later works, notably in the opera Tales of Hoffmann and the ballet Coppelia.

Freud disagreed with Jentsch, thought his treatment of the subject was superficial, and offered a psychoanalytic explanation of the uncanny feeling. He noted, though, that "an uncanny effect is often and easily produced by effacing the distinction between imagination and reality, such as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality."10 As to The Sandman, Freud points out that the Olympia episode is about the least gruesome part of the story and that Hoffmann treats it in an ironical, one might say facetious manner. This, with other examples that Freud gives, shows how easily the uncanny feeling can slip over into the comical. Humor, as long as it can be used, is the best defense against anxiety, as demonstrated by the style of Heine's travelogue.

Cervantes was, of course, a master of the art of twisting the tragic and lofty, without degrading it, into the comical. Two questions arise. First, how mad does a person have to be to mistake windmills for giants--or, more generally, how normal is it to be uncertain whether a perceived object is living or not? Freud, in discussing the uncanny feeling, remarks that "in their early games children do not distinguish at all sharply between living and lifeless objects, and . . . they are especially fond of treating their dolls like live people."11 One of his eminent disciples, however, the child development specialist Rend Spitz, seems to think that there is an almost instinctual ability to distinguish the living from the inanimate:

There is a strange fascination about the idea of the inanimate creating the illusion of life; and also about the living posing as inanimate.... Recently, in a magazine illustration, a little girl was shown kissing a very lifelike doll nearly her own size--with the caption "Which one is the toy dolly?" The caption obviously is intended to be "cute." But the photograph fools nobody: even though absence of color, lack of motion, and two-dimensionality, handicap photography in conveying meaning, we "know" the child from the doll immediately.12

The question is whether this can be experimentally verified. Both child psychology and ethnology (e.g., Harlow's experiments with contraptions of wire mesh and terry cloth, accepted by baby monkeys as "surrogate mothers") would be relevant here. It seems that reports so far tend to support Freud's viewpoint versus Spitz's.13

Our second question is, why does Quixote himself not feel that the windmills are uncanny? Jentsch postulated mental uncertainty as a basic ingredient of that feeling. Such uncertainty is hard to tolerate, and the mind will therefore tend to decide the question quickly, if wrongly. The uncanny feeling is an evanescent feeling, its half-life is very brief. We might say, Quixote makes the decision that there are giants so fast that no uncanny feeling has time to rise over the threshold of his consciousness.

It may be that his madness does not consist in mistaking windmills for giants--an error that within limits can happen to anybody--but in his imperviousness to the uncanny feeling; that to him it does not make as much difference whether those objects are animate or inanimate as it does to other people, and that this constitutes his madness. Such an interpretation is in accordance with modern views of schizophrenia, particularly as they were first developed by Tausk in 1912.14 He considered the tendency of schizophrenics to disanimate the world, and to project their internal emotional struggles into external struggles between themselves and powerful, usually hostile, outside forces. He explained the interest in the creation of mechanisms out of the conflicts involved in these processes. It is important for our purposes to note that this type of projection is quite prevalent in much of what goes by the name of SF, especially where so-called psi powers are postulated.

Where such ideas occur as beliefs rather than as fictions, they are prima facie evidence of pathology. These schizophrenic attitudes toward machines are usually integrated into a well-developed system of delusions. This is exactly the case with Don Quixote. As soon as he is undeceived about the windmills, he explains his error away: it was no mistake, it was a real change, brought about by a vicious sorcerer. Cervantes, of course, is quite positive that the "sage" Friston does not exist: he is purely a figment of Quixote's imagination. This is what distinguishes the novel from fantasy, what makes Don Quixote a realistic work. The windmills have never been anything but windmills; the author knows it, and so the reader knows it, too. But Quixote doesn't. As a subjective experience, his encounter can therefore stand as the paradigm of the innumerable such encounters in later SF and fantasy.

There are basically two ways of introducing structures or beings that may or may not be alive into fiction: the author can focus on the feelings of an outsider who stumbles on such an object, as Quixote did and as Nathanael, the suffering hero of The Sandman, did; or he can focus on the relationship between the creator and the created. This latter approach has found its classical form in a work contemporaneous with Hoffmann's, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

We must also consider who the carrier of the emotion is: Not only the readers of a story, but also the characters in it may react to the same perception with a more or less uncanny feeling, or none at all. This in turn may depend on the character or on the author. The character who encounters the stimulus of the uncanny feeling is usually either the narrator, or the hero on his quest, or both. He may be more or less susceptible to the uncanny feeling, and the author wants to show the degree of his character's sensibility. It may be, on the other hand, that it is the author himself whose sensibility is either weak or strong.

Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race offers a good example of this ambiguity. The narrator finds himself in a subterranean world where technology is based on a mysterious power called "vril":

In all service, whether in or out of doors, they make great use of automaton figures, which are so ingenious, and so pliant to the operations of vril, that they actually seem gifted with reason. It was scarcely possible to distinguish the figures I beheld, apparently guiding or superintending the rapid movements of vast engines, from human forms endowed with thought. (§18).

How is that for keeping a stiff upper lip? The Coming Race was written in 1871, the height of the Victorian Age. It is fitting that no further comment is made on these automaton figures. Whether Bulwer-Lytton wanted to show his character capable of not registering feeling, or whether that was a trait in the author himself, would be hard to decide; but there is no doubt that the ability to conceal, repress, or simply not feel any of the subtler and less tractable emotions helped the ruling classes of Britain to conquer a large part of the world--not, however, to hold it, and today the Victorian frame of mind seems awfully dated. Though Bulwer-Lytton could claim some distinction for having anticipated atomic energy in his concept of "vril," The Coming Race is, virtually a forgotten book.

I think we can now generalize these observations and bring them closer to our special interest. It has been difficult for SF to gain a hearing beyond the circumscribed circle of "fans". SF has been reproached with being of low literary quality, lacking in genuine human interest. Its characters are said to be one-dimensional clichés, they do not come to life. What do these rather general criticisms mean specifically? Perhaps they mean that in SF overwhelming events are depicted, but that the characters who experience them are not shown as being overwhelmed--just as in The Coming Race the narrator's reaction is simply passed over. It is only natural that the reader, who would respond with enormous emotion if he himself were exposed to such formidable adventures fails to develop that identification with the hero which alone would make him feel that he reads about fully realized characters, as he does in "mainstream" fiction.

This is less true of fantasy than of SF. Compare the cold evasion of the uncanny feeling in The Coming Race with its treatment in such fantasy novels as Descent into Hell by Charles Williams; or with The Turn of the Screw, by James, where uncanniness holds you in its grip to the very end; or for that matter, with almost any "Gothic" novel.

We should on the other hand expect little if any uncanniness where the twilight zone between the living and the non-living is evoked for purposes of allegory. Carl Spitteler's Olympian Spring culminates in his presentation of the order of the world as a giant metallic automaton forever rolling on its prescribed course and in its run squashing billions of .sentient beings. The reader may share the existential horror that Spitteler's character Hera feels as she gazes at the spectacle, but he will hardly perceive it as uncanny.

I believe that likewise no uncanny feeling is attached to the bird automaton in Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium."15 Where an object clearly stands for something other than itself, the question whether it is alive or lifeless will not engage our attention, and there is no stimulus for an uncanny feeling to arise.

Let me now come back to the dichotomy I suggested earlier--the two approaches, from the angle of the outsider, and from the relationship creator/created.

In the stories of the creation of artificial beings we find little of the uncanny feeling. We encounter something else instead: open conflict, usually in the form that the creature turns against the creator, be it merely by persisting in automatic functioning damaging to him. We can call it rebellion, for short.

Here again I would suggest that the reason the uncanny feeling does not develop is that it would be so transitional: as soon as the rebelliousness of the creature becomes clear and the mental uncertainty is thus removed, the uncanny feeling would yield to other emotions, and neither writer nor reader has reason to pause to consider an intermediate stage.

There is, of course, a practically unlimited supply of examples. Frankenstein is the paradigm, but the motive has occurred many times before and after, e.g., in the Jewish legends about the golem and in their modern adaptations. Or in innumerable robot stories. Asimov's three laws of robotics appear as an instance of the opposite, since they seem to exclude the rebellion of the creature; but I would point out that on the contrary, these arbitrary laws were deemed necessary as a defense. Without these laws, Asimov says, robots would indeed turn furiously against human beings (see I, Robot §6).

Some of the more complex and ambitious works of SF present both, the astonishment of the onlooker who has stumbled on robots, and the rebellion of robots against their makers and masters. This combined pattern formed the message of the very first work that introduced the term and concept of robot to the Western world, Capek's R.U.R. Almost half a century later, this same double approach was used in 2001.

As rebellion is an ubiquitous motive in fiction where artificial beings are made, it must correspond to a universally felt emotional need. Whether that need springs from human nature in a biological or in a historical sense may at the present state of science be impossible to decide. I can therefore not go as far as to agree with Stanislaw Lem when in a recently translated essay he attempts to reduce the motif to a more limited phenomenon by tracing it to special ideological taboos:

The concept of an artificially created man is blasphemy in our cultural sphere. Such a creation must be performed by man and is therefore a caricature, an attempt by humans to become equal to God. According to Christian dogma, such audacity cannot succeed; should it happen, it necessarily means that satanic forces were engaged in the work ... only the Mediterranean culture, modified by Christianity, considers the homunculus to be the result of blasphemy. It is for this reason that those "archetypical robots," those literary prototypes from earlier centuries such as the golem, are as a rule evil or at least sinister ... the relationship of belief to a special technique is determined by whether or not the belief has dealt dogmatically with the technique. Christian belief has dealt neither positively nor negatively with the automation of sewing; therefore, the sewing machine is an absolutely neutral object--for religious belief. On the other hand, religious thought has dealt with living insofar as it has spoken of angels; there was a time, therefore, when theologians regarded all attempts to master flight as close to blasphemy. And belief has dealt intensively with the human mind so that the homunculus has become in our civilization a technical product at least partly "determined by the devil."16

The argument is captivating, but it has its weak points. The sewing machine is not only religiously neutral, it also has the qualities of being familiar and often operated by muscle power; the machines that Heine saw (probably mostly spinning machines) were just as religiously neutral, yet they did evoke the uncanny feeling. The creation of artificial beings has retained its flavor of "blasphemy" (hubris would be the better word) though the formerly equally tabooed flying has not. "Prototypes from earlier centuries" are by no means the only ones to appear "evil or at least sinister"; more recent types appear so too, and Lem cannot account for the persistence of the feeling that artificial creatures will rebel.

To sum up: the relationship man/machine comes to its most interesting point when the question of the machine's possibly being alive is raised. This can be considered in two relations: a) creator/creature; b) observer/ambiguous entity. With a), rebelliousness is the outstanding psychological phenomenon; with b), the uncanny feeling. SF neglects these relationships at its own peril, and if any work of fiction dealing with such relations is to be of any value, these emotional forces will come out whether the author intends it or not.

These are the thoughts that the material insinuates. To validate them, and to anchor them securely by finding out why these psychological patterns are as they are would require much research. I think it should be undertaken, for SF is too important to be ignored by science. SF has the noteworthy mission to prepare us, with empathy and imagination, for the innovations that science has in store for us. They will involve more urgent and more tractable problems than the complex one of man's relation to machine, artificial intelligence, and all the other windmills; but if we take a longer view, the windmills loom larger. There has never been a shortage of Sancho Panzas; but somebody has to wield the lance of Don Quixote.17


1I have used the translation by John Ormsby (UK 1885); since it is both faithful and vivid, I have preferred it to many later translations.

2Ibid., p58, n.2; Don Diego Clemencin in an earlier edition of Don Quixote (Madrid 1835), ppl70-71; Wyndham D.B. Lewis, The Shadow of Cervantes (US 1962), pl2.

3Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend, Hamlet's Mills (1969), passim. As to Mumford's writings, see especially Technics and Civilization (US 1934), p32.

4The same is true, incidentally, of sexual action. The mechanical problem concealed here has attracted at least one SF writer: Pierre Boulle, who describes the troubles of a young couple celebrating their wedding night in the condition of weightlessness that obtains in a space craft; see "L'Amour et la Pesanteur" ("Love and Gravity") in his Contes de l'Absurde (Paris 1963).

5Ma già volgeva il mio disio e 'l velle, / Si come rota ch'igualmente é mossa, / L'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle. (But now, what drove my will and my desire/ Was, like a wheel in equal motion, / The love that moves the sun and the other stars.)

6Miguel de Unamuno. The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (UK 1927), p40.

7Ernst Jentsch, "Zur Psychologie des Unheimlichen," Psychiatrisch-Neurologische Wochenschrift No's. 22 & 23 (8/25 & 9/1/1906).

8Heinrich Heine, "Florentinische Nächte," Sämtliche Werke, 4:353-54.

9Lest any reader be shocked by my so classifying The Sandman, let it be noted that I am operating in the frame of a terminology where the distinction is that SF deals with the possible, fantasy with the impossible. It is true, though, that what is and what isn't possible would have to be decided according to the author's expectations, determined by his historical locus. The question how many of the impossible events in The Sandman are meant to occur exclusively in Nathanael's imagination is moot in our context.

10Sigmund Freud, "The Uncanny" (1919), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 17 (UK 1955):21756.


12René A. Spitz, "Life and the Dialogue," in Herbert S. Gaskill, ed., Counterpoint: Libidinal Object and Subject: A Tribute to R.A. Spitz on his 75th Birthday (US 1963), pl55.

13Cf, among others: Harry F. and Margaret Harlow, "Learning to Love," American Scientist 54 (1966):244-72; F. Heider and M. Simmel, "An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior," American Journal of Psychology 57 (1944):243-59; Nicholaas Tinbergen, The Study of Instinct (1951).

14Victor Tausk, "On the Origin of the 'Influencing Machine' in Schizophrenia" (1919) in Robert Fliess, ed., The Psychoanalytic Reader (1948). This essay is of importance in the study of man-machine relations chiefly because it contains the clinical material upon which Sachs based his study (see 17).

15In his short story "A Man"--New Yorker 12/30/72--Donald Barthelme refers to such a bird as "a piece of expensive junk."

16Stanislaw Lem, "Robots in Science Fiction," in Thomas D. Clareson, ed., SF: The Other Side of Realism (1971), p309. Robots being the favorite machine in SF, this brilliant study is important for our subject.

17In addition to those named above, the following works are of importance for our subject. Josef Popper-Lynkeus, Die technischen Fortschritte nach ihrer ästhetischen und kulturellen Bedeutung (1888); important, in spite of its age, as an unusually clear and forceful affirmation of the role of the machine. Roger Burlingame, Engines of Democracy (1940); Part VI, "The Social Lag," is thought-provoking, though dated. Hanns Sachs, "The Delay of the Machine Age," in his The Creative Unconscious (1942; enlarged edn 1951); this essay is indispensable as the classic psychoanalytic orientation to the man-machine problem. Arthur O. Lewis, Jr., ed., Of Man and Machines (1963); this rich and up-to-date collection of fiction and non-fiction pertinent to the problem area of man-machine relations deserves first priority; it is of special interest in that it leads to further reading.



Don Quixote misinterprets reality, seeing a menacing giant instead of a simple, old-fashioned, evidently familiar device: a windmill. But commentators have noted that windmills were first built in La Mancha thirty years or less before Cervantes wrote. We have in Don Quixote, then, a familiar motif already in modern form: the hero’s confrontation with a new technology. Constructs of modern SF—e.g., the computer HAL in 2001—may be equated with humans because of their mental capabilities. The core of Quixote’s adventure, however, is that clearly he mistakes a purely mechanical device for a living being. He does so because he is mad, but the fact that the story has caught the fancy of generation after generation can be explained by assuming that its manifest content—the misperception of a technical artifact as a living being—has appealed to those who increasingly have faced the same dilemma. The chord that Cervantes struck has never been silent since.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)Back to Home