By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Machine Stops’ (1909) is probably E. M. Forster’s best-known short story. The story’s influence can arguably be seen on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror.
Like many other dystopian stories, Forster’s has gone on to influence popular culture in numerous fields (the pop group Level 42 even wrote a song about it) and it has been pronounced one of the best-ever science-fiction stories on several occasions. Forster himself wrote ‘The Machine Stops’ as a response to one of H. G. Wells’s utopian novels (probably A Modern Utopia, published in 1905).
Forster responded by offering a dystopian vision of mankind’s future, a bleak analysis of our over-reliance upon, and eventual subordination to, modern technology. You can read the story here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below; you can also get hold of other Forster stories by investing in the excellent edition of his short fiction, Collected Short Stories (Twentieth Century Classics S.).
‘The Machine Stops’: summary
First, a brief summary of the plot of ‘The Machine Stops’. In the future, mankind dwells underground where they rely on the Machine for all their needs. Everyone owns a book, referred to as ‘the Book’, which is not a bible but rather a sort of instruction manual telling people about the Machine.
The narrator tells us that the ‘clumsy business of public gatherings had been long since abandoned’. People stay in their own rooms, under the ground, and interact via technology – living a virtual rather than face-to-face existence in both their education and socialising. People ‘isolate themselves’ when they go to sleep, unplugging themselves from this technological world of telecommunication.
A mother and lecturer, Vashti, who lives in the southern hemisphere, talks to her son Kuno, who is in the northern hemisphere, via a round plate which functions as a sort of videophone. Kuno wants his mother to come and visit him where he lives in the northern hemisphere, as he wishes to experience the stars, not from an airship, but while standing on the surface of the earth and directly exposed to them. However, Vasthi vacillates and initially refuses to go to see him, as she is reluctant to leave her room.
Eventually, Vashti gives in and arranges to go and visit her son, and makes the journey via an airship. We are told that few people travel anywhere these days, because everywhere on the planet is virtually identical to everywhere else. Airships have been preserved from a former age when people used to travel to visit things, whereas now everything is brought to them in their rooms.
Vashti’s journey reminds her of her ‘horror of direct experience’: leaving her bubble or cocoon, the safety and familiarity of her room, and going out and being among other people causes her to become anxious.
When she arrives, Kuno tells her why he insisted on her travelling to see him: because he has something to tell her which he couldn’t tell her through the Machine. He is being threatened with ‘Homelessness’ (a euphemism which means death, since nobody can survive outside of the Machine) for daring to make his way out onto the surface of the Earth by himself, demonstrating personal agency and independence.
People are allowed up to the surface, but only under supervised and permitted conditions. Kuno has gone rogue by venturing out there by himself.
Kuno chastises his mother for worshipping the Machine, and they argue. He tells her about how he discovered that his room is located below Wessex, in south-west England, and that he climbed up onto the earth and saw the hills as the Anglo-Saxons had seen them in the long-forgotten past. He had reconnected with nature and with the land, land which he had only been able to experience as history, through lectures, before. He learned that there are people who live outside of the Machine’s control.
However, mysterious ‘worms’ pursued him and ensnared him, bringing him back underground and back to the Machine. Knocked unconscious, he woke up to find himself back in his room.
Vashti returns home, thinking her son mad. In the ensuing years, respirators – which allow people to safely visit the surface of the earth – are abolished, with leading academics calling ‘first-hand ideas’ a mirage, since it is better to get information about the surface of the earth safely from ‘gramophone’ recordings or what Forster calls the ‘cinematophote’ (i.e., film recordings or moving pictures). Second-hand or even tenth-hand ideas are better than direct experience, these lecturers argue.
Another development that takes place is the re-establishment of religion, with the Machine being worshipped as a god. Vashti herself has lost all sense of the meaning of life: delivering a bad lecture is enough for her to long for euthanasia.
Vashti loses all contact with her son, until she receives a message from him one day. He has been transferred to the southern hemisphere, to a room close to her own, as a result of his transgressions. He utters to her the cryptic words ‘the Machine stops’, arguing that the Machine – on which everyone is now wholly dependent – is slowing down and grinding to a halt.
But when Vashti does complain to the Committee of the Mending Apparatus, having perceived that the music she teaches is ‘imperfect’ as the Machine provides her with it, she is fobbed off and merely told that her complaint will be ‘forwarded in its turn’. Others receive the same answer when they file a complaint.
Eventually, just as the population had accepted ‘good enough’ as an acceptable standard for everything in their lives, people come to accept these flaws (such as smelly bath water, imperfect poetry, and sullied music recordings) as part and parcel of their lives.
Forster’s narrator tells us that the event which triggered the ‘collapse of humanity’, however, was when people’s beds failed to materialise in their rooms when they were summoned. From there, everything gets worse, with lecturers reassuring everyone that things are sufficient and the population should just carry on without sleep or clean air or light.
Eventually, as things descend further, there is, Forster’s narrator tells us, ‘hysterical talk’ of ‘measures’ and ‘provisional dictatorship’. Then the whole communication system shuts down.
People panic and pray in their desperation to the Machine, but it’s no good: man, the narrator tells us, is ‘dying in the garments that he had woven’. Vashti finds Kuno, who, like her, is dying, but before they join the legions of the dead, Kuno tells Vashti that he has seen and lived among those who survive above-ground – the so-called Homeless – and that, although he and his mother will perish, the human race will survive, having learnt its lesson.
‘The Machine Stops’: analysis
In his entertaining if often partisan Trillion Year Spree: History of Science Fiction, Brian Aldiss has very few words of analysis to offer about ‘The Machine Stops’, despite the fact that Forster’s short story foreshadowed and even directly influenced later authors of dystopian fiction. Aldiss calls Forster’s story ‘overpraised’ and dislikes the ‘moralising’ tone of Forster’s narrative.
This is unfair. ‘The Machine Stops’ deserves to be read, studied, and analysed alongside Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four as one of the most powerful, as well as one of the most prescient, early works of twentieth-century speculative fiction.
Indeed, who can read ‘The Machine Stops’ after lockdowns, Zoom and Teams meetings and lessons, and a dislike of close contact with other human beings became part of everyone’s everyday life, and not think that Forster was a seer?
In 2019, his story looked like what he doubtless intended it to be: a fantastical piece of speculation about where our relationship with technology might take us. Reading the story in 2020 or afterwards, and it looks like a manual for the much-touted and chillingly dystopian ‘new normal’.
On the face of it, it’s surprising to find the author of Howards End and A Passage to India writing a dystopian short story. And yet when we consider Forster’s distaste for the modern in Howards End, and especially his dislike of modern technology, ‘The Machine Stops’ makes more sense as a typically ‘Forsterian’ production.
In his diary in January 1908, the year before the story was published, Forster wrote that, rather than freeing us, science was enslaving us, especially new ‘machines’. It’s clear that Forster was, at the very least, a technosceptic, if not also perhaps a full-on technophobe.
We should view ‘The Machine Stops’ as Forster’s imagining of a nightmare future in which this ‘prospect’ is realised. The story also anticipated some later technological inventions, such as instant messaging and video conferencing. As the narrator says early on in the story, the human race had accepted ‘good enough’ as a high enough standard for everything they experienced.
But as Kuno makes clear to his mother, seeing her on a plate and hearing her via a telephone-type device is not fully seeing or hearing her. When Vashti gives her lecture on Australian music, we are told that her audience can see and hear her ‘fairly well’, i.e. well enough, but not perfectly. Nothing can quite recapture the experience of face-to-face interaction.
We learn that in the futuristic world of ‘The Machine Stops’, a parent’s duty is considered finished at the moment of birth: once Vashti had given birth to Kuno, he was taken from her and thereafter they only visited each other intermittently, until he was assigned a room on the other side of the earth. Now they mostly interact via the video plates.
It’s an idea that J. G. Ballard would later build on and take even further, where in his 1977 story ‘The Intensive Care Unit’ the narrator has done everything remotely since birth: even get married and have children, without ever once having been in the same room as his wife.
Human contact, too, has become something to be viewed with suspicion and even fear. At one point, when Vashti is on board the airship, she almost falls, but it’s only thanks to an attendant reaching out and catching her that she is saved. However, rather than being grateful to the woman for preventing a nasty fall, she is angry with her for behaving so ‘barbarically’: human decency has come to be viewed as barbarism. The ‘custom’ of people touching one another, the narrator tells us, had become obsolete.
Indeed, even when Vashti arrives at Kuno’s room having undertaken her journey across the world to see him, she can see no point to having travelled all that way. She is ‘too well-bred’ to shake his hand: she has been conditioned to view close contact even between mother and son as undesirable.
Any dystopian fiction stands or falls by the plausibility of the world it creates or projects. The world that Forster depicts in ‘The Machine Stops’ is intriguing for a number of reasons, even if some of his technological predictions would quickly grow outdated (airships were indeed considered the future of long-distance travel in 1908, but that was before the rise of the aeroplane and a number of high-profile disasters involving airships in the 1930s).
But other details are more chilling. Children are destroyed at birth if they are deemed too strong – a sort of inversion of the ‘survival of the fittest’ notion underpinning Darwinian evolution, because a weak population will be easier for ‘the Machine’ to control and keep docile. And how would someone who longed to be out and about exercising – indeed, someone who lived for such things – cope with being cooped up inside their room all day, every day?
Athletes would yearn to explore, to climb trees and mountains; what’s more, a strong person might be tempted to use his or her strength to rebel against the Machine, which wants people to be kept weak and passive. Of course, in a sense, as Forster’s narrator acknowledges, destroying overly strong children at birth is Darwinian, since humans need to adapt to their surroundings, and technology has dictated the surroundings in which humans will live, rather than humans dictating how technology can best serve them.
Kuno is dangerous, of course, not just because his physical strength is above-average (although that helps him to get himself out into the open so he can recover a sense of ‘space’, of concepts such as ‘near’ and ‘far’) but because he is mentally strong, too: independent, questioning, curious.
But even he has to break himself out of the social and psychological conditioning which he has been subjected to all his life. When he walks along the railway tracks, his fear is not the risk of electrocution on the live rails, but his knowledge that he is doing something that is contrary to the will of the Machine.
Vashti’s behaviour is driven not by personal preference or anxiety, but by the ideology under which she has lived all her life, too: viewing physical contact with distrust, and other people as an unpredictable hazard. Even her own son she regards with pity but also with ‘disgust’.
Critics often remark that, in ‘The Machine Stops’, Forster foretold how our problematic relationship with technology would develop; but what most analysis of the story misses is the extent to which he also foresaw the modern obsession with ‘safetyism’, with avoiding risk, even of a relatively mild kind, in favour of accepting mere existence over living as such. Individuality, human touch, face-to-face interaction, are all viewed as not only alien but actively harmful.
Kuno remarks, as he lies dying with his mother, that humankind has learnt its lesson. But have we? Or, in the century or so since Forster wrote ‘The Machine Stops’, have we already become so conditioned to, and reliant on, a life governed by technology that we are incapable of learning that lesson?