In his review of The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, Matt Rowan wrote:
This latter tale is the kind of story I wish I’d written (but didn’t / can’t), because it so perfectly encapsulates all those ideas of contemporary pluralism and social equity of modern liberalism, and the realistic challenges of actually understanding someone else from their point of view.
This is in reference to “The Machine of Understanding Other People,” the final story of the collection. And while that story clearly engages with those issues, I would argue that most if not all of the others do as well, to some extent, and that “The Machine of Understanding Other People” is a sort of capstone that confronts themes head-on that have been dealt with in various ways throughout the book.
In “The Universe in Miniature in Miniature,” Lucy makes a project out of secretly monitoring a family’s home, inhabiting their lives in her mind and living out their tragedy vicariously.
In “No Sun,” a slightly science-fictiony story where the earth has stopped rotating, the problem of understanding other people appears even during a medium-intensity apocalypse. First, the narrator and his girlfriend, who have only been dating for a few weeks, must decide to flee civilization together. At the beginning of the story, he leaves her alone for a while,
more for her sake than out of any compulsion to get away from her. Of the two of us, she was the one who liked to be alone, and I had begun to see the same fidgeting and irritability that meant she needed two hours to gather herself amidst her introverted rituals, developed over a lifetime of quiet moments within her own mind, without me wandering around the house, making noises, planning, asking her questions about her allergies.
She was faced with the prospect of never being apart from me again.
And then on top of that, there’s the division of the narrator and Sara vs. the rest of the world: they are moving away from the city while others move toward it, and they must fight for what’s theirs even to the death if they want to survive.
“Vaara in the Woods”: a man considers himself, as he starts a new family, in the context of his ancestors. “Easy Love”: a young American doctor encounters a transplanted Iraqi family that owns his corner store. “The Mother” works differently: one of the stories focused on the direct experiences around Jeremy’s stabbing, the story is itself an exercise in understanding other people, a stream-of-consciousness burst from a woman whose son has been murdered.
“The Wildlife Biologist” takes us to the understandings between family members during an awkward divorce and reconciliation, and the isolation of misunderstood teenagers. The old couple in “The Peach,” telling old stories and teasing each other, have a mature understanding of each other that can enfold their granddaughter, who’s not having as easy a time with her own husband. “The Cop” is like “The Mother.”
“Hair University” returns to the setting of “No Sun,” and to its slight sci-fi-ness, though with a different conceit. Here, a family outcast is determined to risk “full-body disintegration” so he can have hair again; the plan does not help his non-bald brothers understand him better. The next, a story about aliens, is a breezy two pages of understanding-ourselves-by-understanding-other-cultures sci-fi where the aliens are so much like us they too talk about how “[w]e share in common our existence. As conscious beings we are linked by our loneliness and by our questions of BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH.”
There are a few more, but I’ll stop. So we get to the end, “The Machine of Understanding Other People,” and what does Somerville have to say about all this? One way to break up the last story is in three parts, based on who understands whom:
- Neither Tom nor Eliza understands anyone else.
- Eliza has used the Machine on Tom; she understands him, but he doesn’t understand anyone.
- Tom has used the Machine on many people back in Chicago and has decided never to use it again. He does not understand Eliza, but she does him.
In the first part, Tom and Eliza must accomplish a goal together, finding the Machine, in order for each of them to get their inheritance. They don’t really like each other and don’t really trust each other, and they have unequal desires to reach their goal, but they accomplish it in spite of those obstacles. They can agree to work together for mutual benefit but neither has a very good time and succeeding doesn’t necessarily change that.
In the second part, Eliza has warmed to Tom dramatically. Now she understands him, she knows why he does much of what he does and what he feels while they are together. She still doesn’t completely like him, but her tension about what he might do or how he might act is greatly relieved, and she has greater confidence that he might not turn out terribly. Tom’s feelings toward Eliza haven’t substantially changed in themselves, but he does seem a bit warmed up as a possible result of her own drop of hostilities.
In the third part, Tom has changed just about his whole outlook on life. His experiences with the Machine have changed him irretrievably and in many ways he now has trouble dealing with the normal world. Now, even without the helmet, he empathizes with other people—painfully. And he feels a connection to Eliza.
The first part is normal human existence, functional but unfulfilling. Empathy is intriguing, and can be helpful, but it’s also exhausting, and you can completely lose yourself in it. And I still don’t know what to make of the fact that the Machine was designed as a weapon.