E.M. Forster 1907 novel relevant today

bookWhen I was in graduate school at Western Carolina University back in 1970, I encountered a remarkable teacher, Dr. Louise Rorabacker, a retired professor from Purdue who had decided to move to Western North Carolina. There were only 12 of us in her “honors class” on dystopian and utopian literature, and we read a dozen works in about eight weeks.

Dr. Rorabacher’s classes were the most memorable events of my entire experience as a graduate student, and the works on her required reading list are still among my favorite books. This unique little novel (actually a novella due to its brevity) went out of print some 50 years ago, shortly after it was judged to be one of the greatest works in science fiction.

Originally published in 1907, it has recently been “rediscovered,” largely due to recent advancements in technology. I have attempted to find a copy of The Machine Stops many times in the past and failed. Now, it is readily available on the Internet and can be downloaded free of charge from several publishing houses.  

It is still a chilling work that describes a world in which humanity has withdrawn from the Earth and lives in a kind of “paradise” in which every need is met by “The Machine.” It is a world in which people “never touch one another. The custom has become obsolete.” As their dependence on the machine grows, people begin to find eye contact during communication difficult, and gradually they begin to avoid it.

In Forster’s future world, humanity has evolved into cities that resemble honeycombs, with individuals living in pod-like rooms that are multi-layered and underground. All necessities and physical comforts — food, clothing and shelter — are provided by the revered “Machine.” The walls of the pods are studded with buttons which can produce music, clothing, a hot bath or a lecture on literature. Every pod has an instruction manual. However, this manual is the only book in the room. At one point, Forster notes that all of the forests in the world had been destroyed in order to make newspaper pulp. Now, there is nothing left but the instruction manuals.

However, the reader quickly learns that this utopia has flaws. The inhabitants are frequently troubled by anxiety and have developed a habit of praying, “Oh, Machine, thank you for bringing me peace.” Of course, peace comes in the form of soothing drugs or vague music without melodies. If Vashti desires diversion, she does not have to go out and find it; diversion is brought to her in her cell by the Machine. (Now, that does sound a warning note in my head!)  Further, the Machine offers mankind “simulations” for reality ... a pale copy of “real” life.

There are two major characters in The Machine Stops. Vashti, a female who spends her time preparing complex lectures on past history; and Kuno, Vashti’s son, who is “a critic of the underground culture.” Communication between mother and son is without direct contact and is usually carried out through speaking through an apparatus that produces vague images. When Kuno expresses a wish to come and see his mother, she is offended.

She finds direct contact unpleasant. However, she relents but regrets the decision since Kuno tells her he wants to do the “forbidden.” He wants to break out of the underground world and journey to the surface of the Earth — a place that is filled with poisonous vapors and violent winds.  

Vashti believes that a return to the surface of the Earth is impossible because we have been too long dependent on the Machine. Men no longer pride themselves on physical stamina and strength. In fact, physical activity is viewed with distaste. Vashti warns her son that he is in danger of becoming “homeless,” which is a kind of exile from the Machine. In other words, those who rebel against the Machine will be cast out. However, Kuno persists in his rebellion and finds his way through the abandoned tunnels that go to the Earth’s surface.

Of course, the title of Forster’s dystopian tale gives the reader a sober warning. At first, the Machine merely falters. Services break down and the intricate pipes that deliver the food and the warm baths begin to emit unpleasant odors. The Bureau of Repairs is notified, but for the first time in hundreds of years, the repairs are ineffectual. At length, it is obvious that the Machine has stopped, and humanity begins to blunder out of the cells like half-blind grubs, feeble creatures incapable of existing in the sunlight.

Forster’s message is a bleak one. At the time he wrote The Machine Stops, technology was just on the verge of imparting marvelous advantages. The telephone had just been invented and its use had already spread across the world. We were yet to see television or to be seduced by a multitude of “wonders” that would make it possible for us turn our faces away from one another. Obviously, Forster felt that science had created a technology that, under the guise of making our lives easier, was actually a “guilded prison.” We were condemning ourselves to live in a world of simulations. Gradually, we were relinquishing control of our lives and substituting distraction for reality.

E.M. Forster is not thought of as a science-fiction writer. However, The Machine Stops was written between his third and fourth novels, A Room With a View and Howard’s End. Now that this unique little novella has been rediscovered and is being widely discussed for its depiction of a technology capable of creating “gilded prisons,” it will doubtless soon claim a place in current film. Certainly, when it was discussed 40 years ago in my class with Dr. Rorabacher, it definitely has something to say about our age of smart phones and computers.

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