E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops is an extraordinary short story that was decades ahead of its time. Written in 1909, the author paints a picture of a far future human society. Humanity has retreated underground. People spend almost one hundred percent of their time isolated in their personal rooms. A worldwide mechanical contrivance, known as “The Machine,” runs everything.
The society is dystopian. Real human connection and interaction, critical thought and connection to nature are non-existent. People are beginning to worship The Machine like a deity. Transgressions against the system are punished by death.
Vashti is a woman who happily abides by society’s dictates. Her son Kuno is a rebel who challenges the system. Among other things, he secretly and illegally visits Earth’s surface.
This tale is so prophetic that it bears noting just how accurately Forster predicted certain aspects of our digital age. What contact there is with other people is accomplished through a system that is amazingly like today’s Internet. This system relies heavily upon video conferences and applications that resemble email and instant messaging. People spend much of their day chatting with one another using these mechanisms.
At one point, the Vashti goes through a process that seems very similar to logging into a computer and checking messages, which seems to be reflective of our present day social media accounts,
"all the accumulations of the last three minutes burst upon her. The room was filled with the noise of bells, and speaking-tubes. What was the new food like? Could she recommend it? Has she had any ideas lately? Might one tell her one"s own ideas? Would she make an engagement to visit the public nurseries at an early date? - say this day month.
To most of these questions she replied with irritation - a growing quality in that accelerated age. She said that the new food was horrible. That she could not visit the public nurseries through press of engagements. That she had no ideas of her own but had just been told one-that four stars and three in the middle were like a man: she doubted there was much in it. Then she switched off her correspondents”
It bears repeating that this story this was written in 1909.
Several themes permeate the story, including the dangers of technology, loss of the ability to think critically, loss of humanity’s connection with nature and Forster’s seemingly universal concern with the issue of human connections. I have read Forster’s Howards End, A Room with a View (my commentary on this work is here ) and A Passage to India (my commentary on this work is here). These three novels all concern themselves with people bridging the gap between intellectual, social and cultural differences. Forster is a champion of people of differing groups reaching out to one another. At the same time, all of these books emphasize how difficult such connections can be and how they can even endanger individuals.
Thus, it is no surprise that Forster delves into this concept within his science fiction tale. At one point, Vashti becomes infuriated when another woman, in an attempt to help her avoid a fall, touches her.
“People never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the Machine.”
One would expect a nightmare world created by Forster in such a place where even this simple human shared experience is forbidden.
I highly recommend this story. As I alluded to earlier, in terms of technology, Forster was uncanny in his prediction of the future here. In addition, though his theme of human connections is a common one, he approaches it within this tale in a unique and interesting way. Finally, this is just an interesting story that is well worth reading.