Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Machine Stops

When I was small, I remember the adults I came across often referred to the names of a number of science fiction stories. Several of these were quite new at the time, and topical, such as The Kraken Wakes, The Day of the Triffids, and On the Beach. The future, as it is today, was very much on people's minds, only then people were more concerned with the threat of all-out nuclear war than with global warming.

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.


The Weaver of Grass said...

There must be similar stories around now which when read in fifty years time will provoke a similar reaction. I remember listening to The Kraken Wakes on radio when I was about 21 in those wonderful heady days when they did "Saturday Night Theatre" on what was then (I think) The Home Service.

mrsnesbitt said...

Wow! I really felt the hairs on my neck stand up here.
The children of the damned? Wow what a film!

Dominic Rivron said...

WG:True. But what I find interesting is that the same story can provoke different reactions in different eras.
mrsnesbitt: I don't know that film (it's based on John Wyndham, I think), but this territory gets me thinking of all that 50s scifi - Quatermass, etc. Great stuff.

BarbaraS said...

Another book for the TBR pile.. sounds eerie, doesn't it?

Sorlil said...

Crikey, that is spooky!

Poet in Residence said...

Thanks for the enjoyable story. We're almost there. If EMF was around he'd feel quite at home with the internet, the climate change, the cell phone,etc.

Last weekend on my banana box shopping spree I found:
Vladimir Nabokov - Speak, Memory
Michael Thwaites - The Honey Man
Alvah Bessie - Inquisition in Eden
C P Cavafy - Collected Poems
Robert Zend - From Zero to One
Günter Grass - The Call of the Toad
€6 the lot.
good hunting,

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for the comments everybody.

BarbaraS: One for the TBR pile, yes. At least it's short. I read a lot of EMF a long time ago. I particularly enjoyed Maurice, as I remember.

Sorlil: Spooky indeed.

PiR: If I was EMF, and I was still alive, and I'd written The Machine Stops, what with the internet etc., I think I'd feel pretty smug about it. :)

CP Cavafy is someone I've always meant to read more of. I discovered him through Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, which I struggled through about 35 years ago.

Poet in Residence said...

I should hasten to add that this Cavafy is a 1975 translation by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard otherwise it'd be all greek to me as they say. Only glanced at one poem so far:


Days to come stand in front of us
like a row of burning candles -
golden, warm, and vivid candles.

Days past fall behind us,
a gloomy line of burnt-out candles;
the nearest are still smoking,
cold, melted and bent.

I don't want to look at them: their shape saddens me,
and it saddens me to remember their original light.
I look ahead at my burning candles.

I don't want to turn, don't want to see, terrified,
how quickly that dark line gets longer,
how quickly one more dead candle joins another.

Dominic Rivron said...

Good poem. Thanks for that - got me googling for more.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad that E.M. Forster's 'The Machine Stops' is getting a plug here, Dominic. My old English teacher read it to the school during a series of morning assemblies and it made an indelible impression. Mention of it is rarely made now and yet, in its time, it was an extraordinarily prescient piece of writing. Thanks for this, Dominic.

Rachel Fox said...

I have read some Forster but never heard of this one. Zadie Smith is right about EMF - writer and a half...and several halves.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments.

Dick: It would be good for it to come back onto vogue, as it is prescient now in new ways.

Rachel: he is good isn't he? It's quite a surprise to find him writing scifi, although I'm reading his short stories at the moment and have come across other slightly fantastical ones.

Rachel Fenton said...

Cool - definitely rings true. Great post - thanks for pointing me to it!