The Machine Stops

In an earlier post I mentioned the prescient Marshall McLuhan who saw decades ago that we were living in an era of connectivity and communications

In that interview he commented that most of us think in the past. For artists, he says, it is different. They live in the present, they think in the present, and it can be terrifying.

Here (again) is E. M. Forster.

“I want to see you not through the Machine,” said Kuno. “I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”
“Oh, hush!” said his mother, vaguely shocked. “You mustn’t say anything against the Machine.”

“Why not?”
“One mustn’t.”*

Deep below the surface of the earth humans live served by the all powerful machine that meets every need of the body and the mind. In her solitary cell Vashti studies The Book of the Machine. It contains instructions for every possible contingency. Humans created it. Now they rely on it completely. Vashti has begun to secretly worship the Machine. Her son Kuno, however, is beginning to rebel. He has even fought his way to the surface of the earth and discovered that there is another way of life. He tries to impress on his mother the beauty of the earth and the sky but she shrinks away horrified and disgusted. Vashti must do the distasteful thing – she must tear herself away from her “ideas” and her underground cell from where she lectures on the music of the Brisbane School during the Australian Period. She must travel across the world in an airship to see her son, in person.

She flies over the Himalayas:

Those mountains to the right – let me show you them.’ She pushed back a metal blind. The main chain of the Himalayas was revealed. ‘They were once called the Roof of the World, those mountains.’

‘You must remember that, before the dawn of civilization, they seemed to be an impenetrable wall that touched the stars. It was supposed that no one but the gods could exist above their summits. How we have advanced, thanks to the Machine!’

‘How we have advanced, thanks to the Machine!’ said Vashti.

And that white stuff in the cracks? – what is it?’

‘I have forgotten its name.’

‘Cover the window, please. These mountains give me no ideas.’ … In the evening she looked again. They were crossing a golden sea, in which lay many small islands and one peninsula. She repeated, “No ideas here,” and hid Greece behind a metal blind.

Kuno tells her: the Machine stops. Vashti is horrified. And she refuses to allow this idea. But the Machine does indeed begin to falter and break down. The underground population is trapped and unable to repair the machine or save themselves. Too late, Vashti realizes that her son was right all along. The Machine that served them all would destroy them.

‘We have come back to our own. We die, but we have recaptured life, as it was in Wessex, when Aelfrid overthrew the Danes. We know what they know outside, they who dwelt in the cloud that is the colour of a pearl.’

This is the basic plot of E.M. Forster’s short story The Machine Stops first published in the Oxford and Cambridge Review in 1909. It was a required examination text at my school and I still remember the blue cloth cover of Twentieth Century Short Stories (Egford and Barnes, editors). I thought the story interesting then. I find it even more remarkable now.

In this story Forster foresees the advent of TV, intercontinental air travel, the internet, email and even grief counselors. It predicts a bleak future where humans have lost touch with their humanity and live isolated lives connected mechanically but physically out of touch with each other and the natural world.

Thinking about the Machine is Us/ing Us from an earlier post: What would we do if the machine stopped?

The illustrations are from a 1966 BBC TV production of the story – part of the Out of this World series, and the cover of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop album – the people who gave us the sound track for this film, Dr Who, and a whole raft of other programs.

1 Comment

  1. Bill:

    Such a brilliant story! I had to read this in grammar school too back in the middle ages before time began. I thought it was interesting then – 1962 is my best guess – but to read it again now is a bit mindblowing. So i was glad to come across your post and read the story again. You don’t think of E.M. Forster as a futurist or science fiction writer. I remember writing about it in “O’ level exam. Can’t remember what of course.

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