Will the machine stop?
If I mention E M Forster, what comes to your mind? A Room with a View, Howard’s End and A Passage to India? Lush Merchant Ivory films, early twentieth-century middle and upper-middle class English social life and the last knockings of the Raj? (Incidentally, and I wasn’t ware of this, although he lived until 1970, his final novel was A Passage to India, published in 1924 – which presumably left lots of time for other things.)
Well, that’s all I knew, never having been a fan of his work. Then I came across a short story called The Machine Stops, published originally in the Oxford and Cambridge Review in 1909, and then again in a collection of short stories in 1928. Had I stumbled on it a few years ago, I probably would not have been too interested; it’s story of a dystopian future, where the majority of mankind live in separate cells underground, with no person-to-person direct contact, all communication is through electronic devices and a ‘Machine’ provides all the services needed to enable life to continue. Portraits of dystopia normally don’t do a lot for me, with the very honourable exception of 1984, because I am in principal an optimist, and where scientific progress is concerned, I tend to the view that on the whole it improves lives, rather then being an opportunity to grind them in to the dust.
However, on the back of over a year of coronavirus-inspired lockdown and distancing between people, The Machine Stops comes in to its own. It is a jaw-droppingly accurate representation of where life has gone in this last year. The way of communication over a dull blue screen is Zoom, Facetime, Teams and Houseparty; nobody wants to get anywhere close to another human being; people sit in their own cells, and something that looks very like social media across the internet is where they get – and share – their knowledge and ideas; travel is – grudgingly – possible, but unpopular, because of the risk of contact with other people. And the Machine – the system – provides all of their wants and needs.
The result of all of that, predictably, is that it gets forgotten that humanity first built the Machine – as a servant – and bit by bit the machine becomes a religion, no longer the servant but now the all-powerful, all-knowing protector of the humans buried deep underground in their isolated cells. I’m not going to give away the whole plot – read it, it’s very short, and won’t take long – but bear in mind the title, which will probably point you in the right direction.
I’m not going to draw any crass parallels between the Machine and government/NHS, for example, in time of pandemic crisis but just bear in mind that this was written in 1909. It is a genuine prediction – we can now say – of electronic communication, the internet, social distancing and a reluctance to engage too much with other people. It is extraordinarily perceptive, written only about ten years after HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds – which has been far better known and more successful; less realistic, though.
The Machine Stops, by EM Forster is available as a Kindle ebook, and as a Penguin Modern Classics paperback.