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.
Fascinating. I'd never heard of this story and hardly expected anything resembling science fiction from E. M. Forster. The concern with human connection, though, is E. M. "Only connect" Forster through and through. Thanks - I'll look this one up!
Fascinating indeed -- sounds like a must read! Thanks so much for bringing this to our attention.
Hi Lory - This one is little known but an easy read in part due to its brevity.
Hi Scott - I was so surprised to hear that he wrote a science fiction story.
He really was all about connection.
So interesting...I had no idea Forster wrote short stories, let alone anything with a sci fi edge!
Thank you for putting this one in the spotlight. I have enjoyed the author's novels but am not familiar with this short story. I now look forward to reading something different and special. Thanks!
Like Scott and many others, I was not aware that E.M. Forster had written anything like this. Was it published as a standalone piece or did you read it as part of a collection/anthology?
A great story and an excellent review of it. Forster got so much right that one might wonder about time travel or precognition.
Brian Joseph, I never even heard of this before! It sounds absolutely fascinating. I enjoyed reading your thoughts about it.
Hi JoAnn - apparently he wrote more then a few short stories. This was the only one that I have read however.
Hi RT - This one was really different for Forster.
Hi Jacqui - I had heard about this story and I downloaded it by itself. I am not sure if it was originally published with other tales or not.
The fact that he wrote a science fiction story seems to prompt universal surprise. I felt the same way when I first heard about this
Hi Suko - many have mentioned that they never heard of this before. It seems an undiscovered gem.
Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the good word. It is interesting that Forster, thogh not known for this genre, is , if not more, prophetic as some of the great science fiction authors.
That he was. While he is not known for writing SF, this story is very frequently anthologized, especially in those collections that cover a long period of time and those that attempt to give a brief history of SF through the ages.
Hi Brian. I just read this myself in an anthology of sci fi stories. It is fascinating to me how the people became disconnected from each other for the sake of a safe little hidey hole to exist in. I also found it disturbing how disconnected she was to her own son.
The other thought-provoking thing was as she was traveling in the ship and looking out at the earth and kept thinking to herself, "no ideas here". It's a story I want to read again.
It's similar to another story I just read by Lewis Padgett called "Jesting Pilot". In that story, everyone is living inside a city that is screaming but are all hypnotized so they don't know any better.
I think we find these stories relevant because they parallel truths in real life. Trading meaningful living with purpose for comfort and security. Living vs. existing.
There is a lot to like about this novel in spite of its dystopian approach. I appreciate your highlighting themes 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." You reminded me why I like reading Forster and why I enjoyed this story many years ago -- I should reread it. Thanks for another invigorating review.
Hi Sharon - I agree, stories like this do point out many of the foibles of real society. One thing that is interesting is just how relevant these issues still are.
That Lewis Padgett sounds good. Your description of it reminds me of some of the writings of Philip K. Dick
Thanks James. As you allude to, there are many things in this seemingly different story, that are very familiar to readers of Forster.
I'm guessing this is one of the earliest dystopian novels. Fascinating and yet scary to think many of these issues are as as relevant today.
Hi Tracy - This was indeed an early one. Maybe I will map out a few by date, It would be an interesting comparison.
Forster is one of my favourite writers but I've never heard of this story. It sounds so unlike him.
Maybe not the themes but the genre. Really interesting. I'll have to look for this.
I've read several of Forster's novels, and this surprised me, although it shouldn't have. The wall between genres was nowhere nearly as strong back then as it is today. Mainstream writers frequently wrote fantastic works,
For example, Anthony Trollope wrote a novel, The Fixed Period, in which the inhabitants of a small island, once England gave them their independence, passed a law requiring all inhabitants at the age of 65 to commit suicide. This was published in the 1880's, some 80 years before the SF classic, Logan's Run with a similar age-based cutoff point although much younger, came out in the 1960's.
Hi Caroline - It really was a little uncanny reading this after having read multiple foster works. The setting seemed sop alien for him, but the themes were still there.
Hi Fred - I am a fan of Trollope. I have wanted to read The Fixed Period for a while. It sounds so unexpected coming from Trollope.
Yes, definitely unexpected. When I heard about it, I just had to read it. It's quite different from his other works--more of a harder edge to it. I don't know what to make of it.
Hi Brian, E.M. Forster does sound way ahead of his time here. I love that. I haven't read this author but I will add this one to my wish list. Thanks for sharing.
Hi Naida - This story was indeed a predictor of the future.
It is relatively short so one can read it quickly.
I would always recommend that one start with A Passage ti India however. I think that this is one of the all time greatest novels.
I have never heard of this story, Brian. It is strange how authors could see the future. I was particularly moved when I read that passage on human touch. I think it is one of the most important things that is taken for granted these days. Thank you for this interesting post, Brian. I have read 'A Room with a View', and your brilliant commentary on the book. :)
I agree with you about touch. It is a sense that we often do not think about but it is so important and has a profound effect on us. As the quote illustrates, touch between people is a vital way that we connect with one another.
This one is going on my to-read list. Poor use of technology definitely accounts for part of the alienation people experience, and it's interesting how Forster could see that and anticipate something like what he describes in the passages you excerpt.
I wonder about Forster choosing the name "Vashti" for his main character. That's the name of a character from the Book of Esther. Dismissed as the queen (wife of King Ahasuerus) because she disobeys a summons from him, as he wanted to show her off at a feast.
AWESOME post, Brian! And what a fascinating story! As you point out, it's so uncanny that Forster wrote it in 1909! He certainly foreshadowed many of the problems of our digital age.
I can certainly relate to Vashti's irritation when she's inundated by messages. When I log into my emails, there are so many of them! And all are vying for my attention. Of course, many of them are spam emails which I must then delete. And I don't have the time to spend on deleting all of the ones I'm not interested in! Lol.
How sad that, in Forster's story, people don't touch each other....but you know, I've gone out to eat with my husband, and we both automatically reach for our cell phones. Sometimes, I stop and put my phone down, and insist that we talk. But not everyone does this. It's so ironic that people go out to dinner together, and then get involved with their cell phones, checking their emails, logging into Facebook, Twitter, using apps, etc.
It's also sad that many people only have friends online, either through their blogs, or social media. I must admit to being one such person. I just don't have the time for 'local friendships'. These involve hanging out with people. It's also not the same when you're married. You might have friends that your spouse would not be interested in hanging out with, for example. So it seems easier to just have online friends.
Well, one good thing about online friendships is that you can at least communicate with people, and exchange ideas. However, the downside is that nasty people can hide behind their computers and take pot shots at those they disagree with. The horrible harassment on Twitter is a case in point.
I had never heard of this story before, and didn't know that Forster had written anything related to SF. I will certainly check Amazon in order to get a hold of this story!
Thanks for the very informative review!! :)
Interesting Brian. I had no idea Forster wrote a short story like this. Is it in a collection of stories or is it a stand-alone story? Once again you've broadened my horizons. Some of his themes like not touching seem to be in his other stories -- like A Passage to India, right?
Hi Hila - It is especially interesting that Foster incorporated such technology in this story as in contrast with his other works.
I did not realize that about the name "Vashti.
It seems likly that it relates to the story, I will try to put together how.
Hi Susan - I had heard about this work and downloaded it as a standalone. I am not sure if it is included in other collections. Fred mentioned that it is part of a lot of science fiction anthologies.
The themes of connectedness permeate his other works. A Passage to India, which is one of my favorite works.
As we have discussed I also spend too much time online. Though my wife and I try not to pull out the phones during meals, sometimes it is tempting. I also do not spend as much time as I should with real people. Another downside to our digital age,
You are correct to point out the upsides however, they are numerous.
Once again we are talking about this in the context of a 1909 story.
For many, including myself, discovering that Foster wrote a story such as this was a big surprise.
Oh, this was a brilliant and frightening story. I remember it very clearly, even though it was so short. I have only read Forster's Howards End and on the outset, the two stories couldn't be more different. But I can see that there is a deeper thread of connection between his other writing and this, especially as you said, bringing out the 'human connection.' You make me want to read more of his work...
Hi Priya - This work was chilling. In some ways so different from Forster.
If you liked this and Howards End, I would highly recommend A Passage to India. A Room with a view was also very good.
Wow! I have not heard of this Forster story. I am going to have to get my hands on it! Is it part of a collection by any chance?
Hi Stephanie - The existence of this story seems to surprise many, including myself.
As per the above comments it is part of some collections. I downloaded it free from Project Gutenberg.
interesting that "passage to india" and the 1909 short story should both have to do with enclosures; the Malabar caves on the one hand and the small cubicles on the other; and also with communication: the booming in the caves and the "internet" connections in the cubicles. hmmm.... maybe forster was trying to communicate from his own enclosed space...
Hi Mudpuddle - I did not think about the parallels that you mention but I think that you are on to something.
These are more thematic connections between this story and Forster's other works.
Scary to think that technology can replace contact with humans and the natural world. It's happening already but hopefully won't go that far.
Hi Harvee - And Forster predicted it before so much of the technology came about. I think that in the end humans will find balance and the bad stuff will only go so far.
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