Machine Stops, The by Forster, E.M., 1909
Some of my favorite kinds of SF stories are those that are written by mainstream authors. Its not that they are automatically better quality stories, although they usually are, but I enjoy fresh perspectives on the themes that genre writers use again and again. I do not believe it is a true thing to say that SF is limited, because there are only so many different themes to choose from. We do get a wide variety of tales and ideas in SF, but the only limitations are in the author's heads, not in literature itself. I think that is one of the reasons that our genre is rife with an invasion of mainstream writers: They mine us for fantastic ideas to make their own works better. Before the year is over I will probably be bringing you reviews of books by several mainstream authors, including Gore Vidal. This review is of E.M. Forster's The Machine Stops, a 1909 novelette, and a campus favorite. This one has gotten lots of attention in the last few years because of the way it presaged instant messaging, videoconferencing, television, the internet and a number of other modern communications technology. Four out five stars.
The Machine Stops is a utopia story that I think is strongly reflected in the later books Animal Farm, by George Orwell, Anthem, by Ayn Rand, and Harrison Bergeron, by Kurt Vonnegut. In fact, as far as I am aware it was with this piece that Forster really gave us the first truly modern dystopic vision of a failed utopia, so you could say that this piece served as the genesis of many of the dystopic pieces that came after it. In it all of humanity has gone into the Earth and lives in identical hexagonal rooms that are virtually connected to each other. Humans spend most of their time examining the intellectual work of others or communicating by electronic means, waiting for the next big idea to hit them. They sit in chairs, scanning electronic wavelengths, moving only when its time for bed, and hitting buttons so that the titular "Machine" can be told to bring them food, or medication, or anything else that they need. Humans have become so accustomed to this lifestyle that they allow their bodies to atrophy, as strength is no longer needed at all for survival. The Machine was constructed in a day long past, and they have legends of a revolution that necessitated the underground cities, and that led to the construction of the matriarchal Machine, and destroyed the atmosphere and the environment on the surface outside of access hatches called "vomitories." The only two characters of consequence are a music historian named Vashti, who lives in a city under Sumatra, and her son Kuno, who lives a world away. Kuno contacts his mother and urges her to visit him in person; an unusual request, but not one that is illegal or unprecedented. Almost all of human interaction is heavily regulated, but personal travel is still allowed. Vashti goes, after some heavy prodding, and when she arrives she is told by her son that he has found a way out of the city and to the surface. Her reaction is of shock, tempered after a short time by curiosity, though she knows that Kuno may be declared "Homeless," which is effectively a death sentence. Kuno told her that he made his way to the surface and was captured by the city's maintenance machine, but before he was caught he realized that he could breathe, and that there were creatures up there. After hearing this Vashti gave up on her son for daring to defy the Machine, returned to Sumatra and lost contact with him.
Several years go by and when the narrative is resumed there have been a few changes. Previously religion was abhorrent to the people, but now the Machine is revered as a God. Since people live in near-isolation the Machine has allowed them to worship it as they see fit. Some venerate the screens that are used for communication, while others idolize the button that brings food. Also, trips to the surface have been made illegal, though nobody really cares about the second change. Most in fact think that it is a good idea. Vashti still lives in Sumatra, and Kuno has been moved closer to her. After a long period of time Kuno called his mother to tell her that the Machine was breaking. "The Machine stops," he says cryptically. Vashti thought her son was a fool, but gradually things start going wrong with all services that the Machine provided. Eventually the Machine stoped rolling out the citizen's beds at night, and a near-revolt occured. But even though the people could not sleep in their beds any longer, they calmed down and placed their faith in the slowly breaking machine because they don't know what else to do. They had forgotten how to repair it. Eventually society collapsed totally, rather spectacularly actually, and Kuno and Vashti found their way back to each other in the ruined city. Kuno and Vashti came to their senses in the end, and comforted each other with the knowledge that the beings that Kuno saw when he was on the surface, those who had been made homeless before the fall, would carry on and save humanity from the death they were all about to experience.
Forster clearly presents a dystopic vision of the future, but not only because the Machine stopped working. The society itself is what we might call dystopic, even though all of its citizens machines were met. For example, the Machine provided food, comfort, knowledge, freedom to explore records, music and communication, but it also terminated all newborns that showed any propensities for strength, as society valued equality in all things and shunned those who were better or more able at any one thing.
By these days it was a demerit to be muscular. Each infant was examined at birth, and all who promised undue strength were destroyed. Humanitarians may protest, but it would have been no true kindness to let an athlete live; he would never have been happy in that state of life to which the Machine had called him; he would have yearned for trees to climb, rivers to bathe in, meadows and hills against which he might measure his body. Man must be adapted to his surroundings, must he not? In the dawn of the world our weakly must be exposed on Mount Taygetus, in its twilight our strong will suffer euthanasia, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress eternally.
But if it was considered a sin to be anything but weak physically, society considered it a sin to be weak mentally. Yet with weak bodies and fears strong enough to kill society, that is exactly what they were.
Advanced thinkers, like Vashti, had always held it foolish to visit the surface of the earth. Air-ships might be necessary, but what was the good of going out for mere curiosity and crawling along for a mile or two in a terrestrial motor? The habit was vulgar and perhaps faintly improper: it was unproductive of ideas, and had no connection with the habits that really mattered. So respirators were abolished, and with them, of course, the terrestrial motors, and except for a few lecturers, who complained that they were debarred access to their subject- matter, the development was accepted quietly. Those who still wanted to know what the earth was like had after all only to listen to some gramophone, or to look into some cinematophote. And even the lecturers acquiesced when they found that a lecture on the sea was none the less stimulating when compiled out of other lectures that had already been delivered on the same subject. 'Beware of first- hand ideas!' exclaimed one of the most advanced of them. 'First-hand ideas do not really exist. They are but the physical impressions produced by live and fear, and on this gross foundation who could erect a philosophy? Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element - direct observation. 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. Through the medium of these ten great minds, the blood that was shed at Paris and the windows that were broken at Versailles will be clarified to an idea which you may employ most profitably in your daily lives. But be sure that the intermediates are many and varied, for in history one authority exists to counteract another. Urizen must counteract the skepticism of Ho-Yung and Enicharmon, I must myself counteract the impetuosity of Gutch. You who listen to me are in a better position to judge about the French Revolution than I am. Your descendants will be even in a better position than you, for they will learn what you think I think, and yet another intermediate will be added to the chain. And in time' - his voice rose - 'there will come a generation that had got beyond facts, beyond impressions, a generation absolutely colourless, a generation
From taint of personality,
which will see the French Revolution not as it happened, nor as they would like it to have happened, but as it would have happened, had it taken place in the days of the Machine.
The Machine also transported people all over the globe for mating, presumably to homogenize genetics, skin color, hair color, etc. It seems in that people had individual choice in some matters, and had ceded the right to choose others to the Machine. Forster also has not given the reader any evil overlords to hate, and instead premises this culture on social momentum and free exchange of ideas. But I think that the utopic side of civilization had been bred out of its citizens long before this story started, and the people had become slaves to their own fears. But I think that this is really what Forster was railing against:
Cannot you see, cannot all you lecturers see, that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the Machine? We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralyzed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops - but not on our lies. The Machine proceeds - but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die. Oh, I have no remedy - or, at least, only one - to tell men again and again that I have seen the hills of Wessex as Aelfrid saw them when he overthrew the Danes.
It was not the machine that frightened Forster so much as the machine attitude that he feared would eventually grip the citizens and turn them into weak idiots who could do nothing but die when the machines stop.
I think that this one is a campus favorite for a good reason: It's very good. It was written by an accomplished author and reads very well. The story is compelling. The prose is unencumbered, as is the plot. And Forster wrote the backdrop to fit perfectly with the themes. He truly created a worldwide uniform culture where those with Asian characteristics were treated by the author exactly the same as Caucasians would have been treated, had there been any in the story. That is saying quite a lot for 1909, and this story stands head and shoulders above any other genre stories from that time. If you liked Ayn Rand's Anthem, then you will probably love this one as it deals with similar themes and is told in the same dreamy, professional manner. The good thing is that it is also in the public domain and can be found virtually anywhere on the internet, including on the fiction links of my web-site.
Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell