I have only read one story by E. M. Forster, the author who also wrote the novel Passage to India. However, The Machine Stops has quickly cemented itself as one of my favourite stories. In fact, it was one of the pieces of fiction that inspired me to begin this blog.
Forster’s writing is emotive, and in many ways disarmingly prophetic. He penned the story in 1928, and in it I believe he clearly speculates about: the world wide web, chat rooms, skype, TED talks, globalism, minimalist living, life-support, climate change, and global transport networks. It took me about an hour to read it from start to finish. My copy cost exactly three pounds, and it can fit in your pocket: bargain.
The premise of the The Machine Stops is that humanity has moved underground into a network of bunkers, in order to protect itself from the surface of the earth, which has been rendered inhospitable. Each person in this future lives in isolation, relying on “the machine” to provide global communication and entertainment, as well as shelter and sustenance.
The protagonist of the story is a middle-aged mum, Vashti, who is happily absorbed by the machine until she is contacted by her son, Kuno, who has a startling discovery about the true nature of the world.
At times, I felt that because the story is constrained to Vashti’s perspective, it did somewhat slow the action of the second act. There is one particular monologue delivered by Kuno, that I think would have been communicated far better if Forster simply switched to Kuno’s perspective.
However, the story has aged remarkably well, and Forster’s style doesn’t grate against modern reading tastes. His prose is simple, crisp, and matter-of-fact. A breath of fresh air compared to the flowery type of prose you might expect from the 1920s. For instance, the short story begins by describing Vashti’s home like so:
“Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh” (Forster, p. 1).
So, why should you pick up The Machine Stops? It is now a cautionary tale for our time, even moreso than when Forster wrote it. The moral of the story is simply this: technology cannot truly solve our most primitive desires. Below this, there is perhaps also a nod towards the issues inherent in placing our collective future in the hands of a single system, government, or technology. Especially when we cannot truly understand what it is we are surrendering our freedoms to.
While it might be attractive to outsource the daily minutiae of finding security and sustenance, in doing so we inevitably hand over the very thing that makes us human. When the machine eventually stops (and that isn’t a spoiler, because it’s in the title), Forster draws our attention to the helplessness of those who have consigned themselves to a system. A system that by its nature, removes their individuality as well as their instincts to survive:
“The Machine still linked them. Under the seas, beneath the roots of the mountains, ran the wires through which they saw and heard, the enormous eyes and ears that were their heritage, and the hum of many workings clothed their thoughts in one garment of subserviency. Only the old and the sick remained ungrateful, for it was rumoured that Euthanasia, too, was out of order, and that pain had reappeared among men” (Forster, p. 49).
There is a danger in losing the fundamental knowledge of nature and survival, and instead replacing this knowledge with purely theoretical frameworks. It is a danger I see looming in today’s culture, where reactions (instead of criticism) towards creative content are valued just as much as the original content itself. A critic can critique the critiques that criticised them.
If The Machine Stops was written today, it wouldn’t feel out of place. It’s a melancholic story, certainly, but through the characters of Vashti and Kuno, Forster is able to examine the simple beauties that we take for granted in an ever-interconnected world: luxuries such as nature, family, or smell. The characters of Vashti and Kuno discover the stars far too late, but we still have access to them, even if we have to leave whatever concrete bunker we call home.