Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 25: The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster

Forster, E. M. "The Machine Stops." The Oxford and Cambridge Review, Michaelmas Term (November) 1909.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   9.00/10
My Rating:        8/10

"Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee."

In the distant future, humanity has reached a climax in their evolution, as humans have nestled into a stagnant existence. Some time before, people believed that it would be to their benefit to construct a great machine that spans the globe underground, and in which now are contained many cells that are home to individuals. Society is controlled by what appears to be artificial intelligence (as viewed in 1909), and humans are kept at bay: distracted by ideas, made to fear the outside, controlled birth and weaning, while babies born with special abilities, such as advanced athletics, are "destroyed." It appears the Machine is looking out for the interest of the people, but the people are instead being trained to worship the Machine.

People rarely leave their cells, and have access to an assortment of buttons, each of which, by being pressed, provides the person with their immediate need: feeding, bathing, communicating with others in primitive audio or video, listening to music, attending lectures, and so forth. Like today's internet, people can also access information, texts and music of the past. Thanks to the Machine (now capital M), humanity no longer progresses, and people pursue frivolous acts, seeking new ideas and preparing to share them with others either through private communication or public lectures. This pursuit of "ideas" is intended to prevent humans from accessing true Ideas--those associated with their existence. Like television and the internet which distract more than they educate, Forster manages to foresee a future that is close to today's reality. The story seems to have had a resurgence during the pandemic lockdown, as we were living in cells and pursuing frivolous activities.

The novelette focuses on Vashti, a woman content to be a part of the Machine. In a moment of pure irony, Vashti encounters the greatest form of ideas in the use of her imagination, as she views the clouds while riding in an air-ship: "Their shapes were fantastic; one of them resembled a prostate man. 'No ideas here', murmured Vashti, and hid the Caucasus behind a metal blind." This need to distance oneself from the outside world is an act of limiting thought and imagination. True progress is technological, not social, as "progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine."

Vashti receives a call from her son, who is interested in the outdoors and in the stars, concepts that make Vashti uncomfortable. Her son requests a visit from her, and reluctantly she agrees. In person, he admits to having committed a great crime: he has found a way to the outside world, and gave in to his need to pursue it, even though the act can result in "homelessness": being left outside to die.

An extraordinary story and well ahead of its time. The story appeared during a time of transition for dystopian fiction. We are moving away from the fantasy dystopias of Sir Thomas Moore, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Butler, and toward more technological and science fiction dystopias. Forster apparently wrote the story as a response to the utopian fiction of H. G. Wells, who frequently wrote positively about technological advance, and believed that technology would bring much good to mankind despite potential dangers. Forster's vision is evidently darker. Later twentieth century dystopian novels have clearly borrowed or were influenced by "The Machine Stops." Forster himself was familiar with the precursors to dystopian fiction and early science fiction writing, and forged his work entirely around technology, replacing leadership with artificial intelligence and the dystopian hero who was an outsider and, with Forster, is now born into the dystopian world, rather than the Gullivers of the past who wander into their dystopian realities, whether they be lost lands or a present figure awakening in the future.


Anonymous said...

My husband used this story in his class on utopias. Loved it

Todd Mason said...

Well, Forster *did* have the examples of Wells, "Saki" and a smattering of others (undertones in Kipling's few sf stories)...but this is indeed a key story in the development of sf.

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