Well known for novels such as A Room With A View and Howard’s End, EM Forster also wrote a range of short stories, including the dystopic and quite brilliant The Machine Stops.
In a distant future humans live in single cells underground, connected via a communications network which, despite being first published in 1909, strikingly predicts social networking, video and conference calls, and the reduction of human interaction to screens and immobility. The Machine runs everything, and everybody’s lives are lived out in their one room, where they can speak to thousands of others, but never meet them face to face. Sex has been reduced to a biological necessity and pain and discomfort have been abolished, and so, you may argue, has any semblance of what life really is.
In this midst of worldwide compliance, one man, Kuno, is becoming increasingly unsatisfied with the limitations of his life and the story begins with him calling his mother, Vashti, located in an underground cell on the opposite side of the world, and begging her to fly on the airship to visit him. However, she finds the idea of having to leave her audience and seeing the ‘horrible brown earth’ distasteful. Whilst her son is dreaming of the stars, Vashti and the majority of people have accepted the convenience of the Machine and ‘good enough’ is the general rule.
In this world humanity has lost its humanity and called it civilisation – the sole use of online communication means nuances of expression are lost, conversations are a mass of vapid, pointless questions, and tempers are short. People have become a shapeless mass, both with regards to their interaction with one another, and physically; Vashti is describe as being a ‘swaddled lump of flesh’ with ‘a face as white as fungus’.
The outside world is no longer habitable to these humans, with anybody going out on the surface requiring respirators. Humans retreated underground and have cocooned themselves away inside a mechanical existence where there is no work, no exertion, and no need to do anything except press buttons. All thoughts have moved away from the Earth and Sun as total control was increasingly desired over all aspects of life. Starlight worries Vashti as she makes her disconcerting first airship trip and the unfamiliar sunlight terrifies her as it is beyond her control. Nobody can remember the word for snow.
There is the constant ironical refrain in Vashti’s communications of having new ideas, and whether she has a new idea to give her audience, but when her son looks up at the stars and imagines the shape of a man wearing a sword – harking back to the beginning of our primitive history – this is dismissed as being ‘not a very good idea, but certainly original’. Whenever she has a worry the rule book of the Machine provides the answer; no thought is ever needed. Kuno though wants to break away from the Machine and look up at the stars like our ancestors did, stood upon the earth, ‘contrary to the spirit of the age’ but realising that there is something fundamental missing. Within Vashti any interest in the physical world has been eliminated, with blinds pulled down to hide the view of the Himalayas as they give her ‘no ideas’. First hand experience is dismissed as being impressions developed from fear, and therefore uncivilised, so the best ideas are those that are ‘second-hand, or if possible tenth-hand, from then they will be far from that disturbing element – direct observation’.
The world of the Machine has reduced humanity and its surroundings to a standard appearance, with the world ‘exactly alike all over’. Man has ‘harnessed the Leviathan’ of nature – isolating itself from change, and therefore removing its ability to adapt. The Machine has total control, and in our world of increasing reliance of online systems and everyday use of electronic technologies, I think this book is an incredible predictive study of how human behaviour is influenced by machines, though The Machine Stops takes this to its furthest extreme, with human touch rendered so obsolete that people would rather fall over and let the Machine pick them up again rather than be steadied by somebody else.
Religion has been dismissed as being superstitious, civilization is living with the Machine, but the Machine has become the god of men, with anybody deviating and trying to find their own way out, like Kuno, made Homeless and exposed to the unbreathable air on the surface. Strong children who may possess an interest in the outdoors are euthanised at birth, in order for the Machine to ‘progress eternally’. Where once the weak were left exposed, humanity has evolved so weakness is life. So when one day, when the Machine stops, it is into the terrifying world of silence and nature that humanity once again has to emerge into and rebuild itself.
I find this a fascinating vision of the evolution of humanity, where it isn’t an apocalyptical event which has forced us underground, just our own desire to have everything done for us. Technology plays a significant part in our life, and considering the span of human existence has been a very recent development, but one which every year becomes more complex. Everything is being made more convenient for us, our entertainment is a major focus, and this has brought about amazing things where we can talk to people on the other side of the world with a click of a button, and we can explore places and be exposed to vast libraries of information through sitting on the sofa and turning on a tablet, but in a world where we can grab snippets of information online from news feeds and Twitter and build our own opinions around these often throwaway and limited titbits of information are we dumbing ourselves down at the same time? Where social media has a significant part to play in how we decide on where to go, what to do, and what we think about things, are we losing our ability to think for ourselves?… 'there will come a generation that has gone beyond facts, beyond impressions, a generation absolutely colourless, a generation seraphically free from taint of personality', the mass hoard is lectured. There will be no more ideas.
In such a short novel The Machine Stops holds more horror than any number of gothic ghost stories. Everybody should read it, and consider how far we may go ourselves down the road of technological ‘advancement’ and forget what it truly means to be alive.
Review by Cat Fitzpatrick
2 positive reader review(s) for The Machine Stops
Serena from USA
In one of my elective classes at University we were assigned a book that mentioned "The Machine Stops" briefly. I was so intrigued by the quotes that I went looking for this short story and I do not regret it at all. This story perfectly captures the extreme of full reliance on technology and machines for every form of resource and the changes it creates in humanity. The fact that this entails for a large admiration for something that humans created is insane and will of course end poorly. I enjoyed Forster's story and the thought provoking features it holds.
William from UK
I saw the BBC dramatization of this story back in 1966 and the story and theme have stayed with me ever since. Written in 1909 it is a truly remarkable thesis that humans will become ever dependent on technology even for the most basic tasks. It is clear looking at our modern society and life styles that if not necessarily depending on machines we are depending almost wholly on interdependent systems. Just look at the food supply chain and how fragile that is. E.M. Forster has remarkably foreseen the world wide web, email and video conferencing as well as our dependence in technology. He also postulates the influence and control technology could have on our lives. To the point that those that buck against the technology or question it will be punished. The machine dependent human race will be easier to control if we accept domination by the machine. The title of the book leaves no surprise to the outcome of the story. But that does not spoil the quality and impact of the read. If one remembers that this was written in 1909 this short story will be a satisfying and thought provoking read. I am surprised that Hollywood has not yet made a film of it.
10/10 from 3 reviews