William Poundstone’s “3 Proposals for Bottle Imps” is a Flash animation, multimedia in nature (with dynamic text, images, and sound) and consisting of three allegories and a list of frequently asked questions (FAQ, see screenshot). It takes Raymond Roussel’s 1914 novel Locus Solus as a starting point for critical reflection on the long history of the human-machine relationship and its current manifestations in digital culture. The FAQs, essential to the reader’s experience of the text, explain the bottle imp’s function as human simulacrum, reflect on the philosophical challenge it poses to humanism, and link all this to digital textuality.
Poundstone’s allegorical narratives, especially the one on envy, illustrate the mechanization of the human being, thus functioning as both proposals for “absurd automata” akin to those in Roussel’s novel and “always already the stories themselves, set somewhere else in space and time (and eternally looping in ‘our’ time frame).” Since those narratives take the form of Flash animations, the automated stories are in some ways, as they run and then loop automatically, always already the automata themselves. In other words, they don’t just tell the stories; they enact or model them with image and sound.
Poundstone’s “allegory of envy” tells the story of an eighteenth-century dwarf, Nicholas Ferry, nicknamed Bébé, who is initially a marvel of nature for members of a European court but then comes to be seen as an inferior machine or a faulty toy when a second, better-behaved and better-educated dwarf arrives on the scene. The story exemplifies the vexed relationship of the human and automaton in the Western world’s imaginary order, as well as the two versions of the automaton haunting Western culture, as either wickedly non-empathic or benignly prelapsarian.
The metaphor of person as machine has become central in Western culture since the advent of industrialization, and Poundstone engages this history obliquely in “An Allegory of Ambition,” a proposal/bottle imp that satirizes the industrialized world’s attempts to erase its uglier aspects through things like civic pride and technological progress by telling the story of Swansea's attempts to trope Dylan Thomas's oft-cited words of contempt for his hometown, “Swansea is the graveyard of ambition” with a slogan, “Ambition is critical,” engraved “in brass letters on a granite pavement in Swansea City Centre.” At this point, the proposal/bottle imp animates Swansea’s ambitions by combining an energetic melody, an urban skyline that covers over the green Welsh countryside, and kinetic text phrases such as “component assembly,” “website design,” and “biotechnology,” and then informing the reader-player that the city has indeed attracted a lot of investment in “smokestack-free industries" (see screenshot). However, as the melody continues to pulse along ambitiously, the morphing text points out one more irony—that working-class youth have been left behind by this techno-economic progress.
Overall, in “3 Proposals for Bottle Imps,” metafictional critique is a primary focus. Like the modernist novel, eLit calls attention to its own mediation of reality. For Poundstone’s reader, a main lesson of the encounter with the automaton should be an awareness of story as machine; like the modernist text, the eLit machine is estranging. He effects that estrangement in part by manipulating the Flash animations with virtuoso skill. In each allegory, music, dynamic words, and images pulse along together—images and text morphing, music looping—the machine in control of the reader’s experience of the text, and thus in control of the reader. The reader’s time must be the machine’s time.