One title that was often mentioned was EM Forster's The Machine Stops. Unlike the others, this story had been written fifty years previously. What fascinated my parent's generation was, I suspect, the portrait it presents of a society in which humanity has become horribly weakened by its dependence on technology. This was the era of The Pill, Yuri Gagarin and the transistor radio. Consumer goods were more widely available than ever before and people fondly imagined that by the twenty-first century robots would be doing the housework and we'd be colonising Mars.
I came across The Machine Stops in a second-hand bookshop the other day. When I read it I was startled not so much by the omnipresence of the machine as by its chilling depiction of a humanity absorbed in a virtual world. I now find it difficult to sit in front of my warmly glowing LCD screen without thinking of Vashti sat in her hexagonal cell, “lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet... filled with a soft radiance”. To leave one's cell to meet others in the flesh or visit the surface of the earth has almost become a thing of the past. People communicate via the Machine, but:
“...the Machine did not transmit nuances of expression. It only gave a general idea of people - an idea that was good enough for all practical purposes ... . The imponderable bloom, declared by a discredited philosophy to be the actual essence of intercourse, was rightly ignored by the Machine, just as the imponderable bloom of the grape was ignored by the manufacturers of artificial fruit. Something 'good enough' had long since been accepted by our race.”
As with a lot of good science fiction, this description of the future has an uncomfortable ring of the present about it, although I think it would be wrong to suggest that we have accepted our fate. As for culture:
“There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.”
Chilling stuff. Times change. Some changes are almost impossible to ignore. Others -for example, in the significance of a story- are easy to miss, hardly noticeable until one reflects on the past.
The Machine Stops, by EM Forster can be read online here.