The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster
From The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume IIB, ed. Ben Bova
Avon Books, 1974
Originally published in The Oxford and Cambridge Review
Price I paid: I have no idea
I reckon this is one more to file under the heading of Probably Pretty Important! Or perhaps Historically Notable. Maybe English Lit Class Material. Hmm.
This story was brought to my attention to my buddy John, who I reckon caught a reference to it somewhere and was curious about it? I don’t remember why it came up, honestly. John, can you fill us in on that in the comments, if you don’t mind? Either way, he asked if I was familiar with it, and I wasn’t, so he zipped me a copy from some college professor’s course website, and now here we are!
It turned out that I also had a copy—two actually—in some short story comps floating around the house, Bova’s classic Science Fiction Hall of Fame and the second volume of James Gunn’s (not that James Gunn) Road to Science Fiction anthology. I ended up reading the one in Bova because it’s the one I found first. I’m sure that’s tremendously interesting to you, o reader.
I didn’t know much about Forster before diving into this story, and I feel like there’s a lot that I still don’t. He always struck me as one of those English Major type authors that we’re supposed to read in some kind of class called, like, English 451: The Novel: 1901-1911. With great care and delicacy I, an English major, managed to avoid classes like that, and instead opted for things like Chaucer or Children’s Lit.
As an undergrad I wrote an essay for that Children’s Lit class that the prof liked so much they told me I should submit it to a conference. It was called something like Sex and Candy: The Evolution of Literary Gardens from the Medieval Period to the Victorians. I did not submit it because her praise gave me massive imposter syndrome, and I have since lost the document file.
So anyway I never read Forster because I guess I always assumed that Howard’s End was gonna be, like, a Jeeves and Wooster novel but not funny, and now based on this story and also a quick Wikipedia read I think I did the guy wrong! He was pretty openly gay! His books dealt with class hypocrisy! I think I’d probably like him!
I guess Wodehouse also dealt with class hypocrisy in his way but that’s for another review maybe.
So The Machine Stops is about some far future date where everybody lives underground and all their needs are taken care of by something called the Machine. We don’t learn much about the Machine or how it works or where it is when it was created or why or anything, which is fine because that’s not the point of the story. What we know is that it actually does a great job of taking care of people and making sure all their physical and emotional needs are met. Every person on the planet lives in a room exactly like everyone else, and everything is provided for them to survive in luxury. No one ever interacts with another human physically because they are all connected via remote access terminals for communication and education. Folks spend a lot of their time attending “lectures” and doing things to generate and share “ideas” and honestly, I dunno, it doesn’t sound all that bad to me.
Of course what everybody is going to tell you is that this story is monumentally prescient, predicting the Internet and text messages and videoconference lectures and food delivery and a perfect system of airships eternally roaming the planet and everything and all that. Which, sure, okay, I see a lot of similarities too. But I think all of the technological similarities blind people to the point of the story and the things that Forster was actually talking about.
I mean there’s this BBC thing from 2020 where a guy says “The Machine Stops is not simply prescient; it is a jaw-droppingly, gob-smackingly, breath-takingly accurate literary description of lockdown life in 2020.”
I’m gonna neatly step around the fact that he uses so many adverbs like that because I try not to be a hypocrite and also because it would distract from my own central point of fuck you shitlib some of us still had to go to work oooh I bet it was really hard living in your townhouse and working from home and not risking your goddamn life to make sure the global elite get to keep their stock portfolios healthy while the monotremes scream in our faces about how masks are tyranny *ahem*
Sorry about that, I think I blacked out.
This story takes place from the point of view of a woman named Vashti, who lives underground somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere. Her son, Kuno, lives underground in the Northern Hemisphere, particularly in England, but that’s okay because with modern telecommunications they can communicate instantly at nearly any time with each other.
Vashti is pretty cool with this situation. She has lots of friends that she can communicate with at any time. She gives and watches lectures. Sure, her arms and legs are atrophied from lack of use, but everything in her life is perfectly accessible and she’s quite all right living the life of the mind and spirit and not toiling in drudgery until she dies.
So of course her son is here to ruin everything. It’s what sons do. I can say this because I am a son.
Kuno calls her up and asks her to come visit him in person. She says no, she absolutely does not want to do that. She says that several times and then does it anyway.
We learn that people only ever go above ground for two reasons: To take the airships from place to place, which is extremely rare, and to look around and come up with “ideas,” which is rarer. Vashti finds the whole thing very distasteful. Her trip takes at least a day and she’s disgusted by everything about it, up to and including being able to see the stars, the Himalayas, and Greece. She deems them all to be completely devoid of “ideas.”
I keep putting that word in quotes because I’m not entirely certain I understand what Forster meant by it. I get that he’s thumbing his nose at some variety of faux intellectualism but I think something is lost in translation in the concept between then and now. If this story were truly as prescient as everybody gasps about, I think it would involve her finding a copy of Shakespeare and then casting it aside saying that he should do his own research.
Actually, I have a little more to say on that topic, but I’ll get to that.
Vashti finally arrives and talks to her son, who tells her what he couldn’t say where the Machine might hear. It turns out he’s been to the surface and walked around a bit. He found a way up that doesn’t involve the airships, an old access tunnel from when the underground world was created. He got up there and explored for a little bit, and while the air was not to his personal liking he did see humans out there, hanging around in the fog.
Vashti does not believe any of this and goes home.
Years pass and things in the world begin to change. Respirators, like the one Kuno used to live on the surface for a little while, are banned. Later there is a general trend against the formation of original ideas. Some guy makes a big hit when his lecture talks about how it’s wrong to do that, that real knowledge comes from learning things third-, fourth-, tenth-hand.
Do not learn anything about this subject of mine – the French Revolution. Learn instead what I think that Enicharmon thought Urizen thought Gutch thought Ho-Yung thought Chi-Bo-Sing thought Lafcadio Hearn thought Carlyle thought Mirabeau said about the French Revolution.
And like, this isn’t all that bad a thought? I mean, I certainly don’t think that all scholarship should work that way, that’s ridiculous, but the guy here does talk about how you should look at various sources, the more the better. Now, in real life that would be a good step in getting your grounding in a topic before endeavouring to add your own opinions to it, but in the story the guy says that’s where it should end, which is of course a bit too far.
Where I find this funny is that it is one of the more scarily prescient elements of the story, and it’s not one I’ve seen anybody else talk about, partially because you have to scrape away a little patina to get to it. What I’m talking about is Online Discourse, and how it passes through so many hands before it gets to you. Now of course the modern chant of “do your own research” is the opposite of what Forster’s guy is talking about, but the truth is that that “research” is so often coming from someone watching a YouTube video which is based on a blog post which is based on a Tweet which is based on a headline which is based on a falsified study in a for-profit medical journal funded by the Institute for Guns, Freedom, Flags, and Race Science.
One day Vashti gets a call from Kuno and he says, simply, that the Machine is stopping. She figures this is just another example of him being a loonie and goes about her business, but then sure enough, stuff starts to fall apart. It starts with the Music not working properly, but then it extends to food, to reading material, the lights, and eventually the air itself. People complain but their reverence for the Machine makes it so they don’t complain too hard, or they quickly adjust to the situation. Eventually it’s explained from somewhere that the Mending Apparatus, the part of the machine that fixes broken things, is the thing that’s itself broken. This news comes from that same guy who earlier suggested that nobody try to come up with any new ideas about stuff, and by gum I just realized that he’s probably supposed to represent some government propagandist working for the media without disclosing that fact, or something akin to it.
There’s a kind of religious fervor about the Machine and how we ought to thank it for the things we do have.
And then everything goes to hell and everybody dies, the end.
(Except for the people who were already on the surface, I reckon they’re supposed to carry on, so that’s cool.)
So Forster himself said that this story was kind of a response to H.G. Wells, specifically The Time Machine, and how the Morlocks toiled so that the Eloi could live in perpetual comfort. He kinda flipped it around so that the perpetual comfort was underground this time, and made it so that the toil was all done by machine, and so I guess what I’m getting at here is asking what’s the point of doing that?
I’m struggling to put this novella into its proper historical context, mostly because I’m not super familiar with the world of Edwardian England. My gut wants to say this story is about fascism but that’s just me being me. To be fair, I think my gut is on to something, even if it’s not historically appropriate. I can’t find any references on Wikipedia to Forster’s beliefs on the matter of the monarchy, but maybe there’s something there too.
I think it very likely that this story is not some kind of technological warning like folks on the Internet are howling, but rather that the Machine and its services are representative of the whole glistening bulging top-heavy rotting-underneath you guessed it Capitalist System.
I mean, it works as well as anything else. It was on people’s minds even then. Over here in the US, the IWW had existed for four years at this point. Robber barons were all over the place. It’s just something to think about.
Honestly I thought this story was well worth reading, even if I can’t quite figure out what I’m supposed to get out of it. That’s on me, I think, and I want to give it a lot more thought, perhaps some more reading on Forster and who he was and what he thought. I think it might just be that there’s enough going on in this story that it merits more than a 2000+ word essay on it that got interrupted by a rant against some boring art critic at the BBC.
But it’s also, I think, partly because I don’t think the beginning of this story was actually a dystopia. There are certainly some unsavory elements but really you could do a lot worse than a society where everybody’s needs are covered and they can dedicate themselves to whatever makes them feel fulfilled spiritually and intellectually. Is Forster just saying that he thinks if people were taken care of and didn’t have to work to earn their living, they’d, ugh, “degenerate?” I sure hope not.