Review: The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster

I can't manage to write a coherent review for Howards End, even though I loved it and want to recommend it endlessly (or perhaps precisely because of that). So I will write about The Machine Stops instead, a sci-fi story by the same E.M. Forster. I must confess that I had no idea Forster had written anything that could be described as “sci-fi,” but I am glad I stumbled across this short story, because not only is it pretty compelling in its own right, but it also jibes unexpectedly well with Howards End.

One of the themes in Howards End is alienation in the modern world: the severed connection to nature; the city as a “tract of quivering grey, intelligent without purpose, and excitable without love; as a spirit that has altered before it can be chronicled; as a heart that certainly beats, but with no pulsation of humanity" encroaching upon nature; the motor cars traveling so quickly that one loses all sense of time and space after a drive; the oft-repeated notion that this progress of technology is unavoidable and one must simply adapt to it. The world as created by Forster's Wilcox family is not a pleasant place to inhabit, and this is not limited to England. Imperialism brings with it cosmopolitanism, so the quivering grey is to spread across the planet.
Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!
The Machine Stops takes place in the world that came to replace this civilization of speed. The human race has turned its back on nature, after one last effort to defeat it. The zenith of the civilization of speed was the attempt to “keep pace with the Sun” by flying high-speed airplanes westward in an attempt to neutralize Earth’s diurnal rotation. Once that failed, humanity lost all interest in nature and retreated underground, in a cocoon made possible by technology. Each individual lives in their own little hexagonal room within a huge Machine that fulfills their needs. They don’t go to things; things come to them. They never leave their rooms and rarely travel, for they have everything they could possibly want at their fingertips. They spend all their time discussing their ideas with friends from other cells, via the Machine’s communication systems. Being connected is the default:
Vashti's next move was to turn off the isolation switch, and all the accumulations of the last three minutes burst upon her. The room was filled with the noise of bells, and speaking-tubes. What was the new food like? Could she recommend it? Has she had any ideas lately? Might one tell her one's own ideas? Would she make an engagement to visit the public nurseries at an early date? - say this day month.
I suppose this is the part one might find "prophetic" in this story - this pattern of (incessant) communication that mirrors the one created by today's social media. Fair enough. What is more interesting, though, is the role ideas play in this scheme. Reality is not important, one’s ideas about it (constantly broadcasted to the world) are. Anything outside the inner world, sustained by the quiet, efficient way in which the Machine meets everyone’s physical needs, is simply not interesting. The Machine does not need to forbid people from leaving their cells: they have little interest in it and, besides, they lost the ability to breathe the outside air unaided.
Few travelled in these days, for, thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over. Rapid intercourse, from which the previous civilization had hoped so much, had ended by defeating itself. What was the good of going to Peking when it was just like Shrewsbury? Why return to Shrewsbury when it would all be like Peking? Men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul. […]

'No ideas here,' murmured Vashti, and hid the Caucasus behind a metal blind. In the evening she looked again. They were crossing a golden sea, in which lay many small islands and one peninsula. She repeated, 'No ideas here,' and hid Greece behind a metal blind.
In a way, technology and this primacy of ideas over sensations are twin dangers, because they separate people from the world. (I do wonder if this is the modernist in Forster talking.) In any case, for Forster something is definitely lost in this communication mediated by technology. As Kino, the one character who craves the real deal and eventually finds a way to briefly escape to the surface, says: "I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you."

This is maybe a bit naive. There is no guarantee that there is something inherently different (let alone better) about "humanity naked" that is altered by technology. Still, there is something moving about the account of Kino's struggle to get to the surface. It's perhaps the mere idea of resistance, of breaking free in general. The fact that the Machine turns oppressive in response to this act of rebellion only validates the struggle.
It was easy at first. The mortar had somehow rotted, and I soon pushed some more tiles in, and clambered after them into the darkness, and the spirits of the dead comforted me. I don't know what I mean by that. I just say what I felt. I felt, for the first time, that a protest had been lodged against corruption, and that even as the dead were comforting me, so I was comforting the unborn. I felt that humanity existed, and that it existed without clothes. How can I possibly explain this? It was naked, humanity seemed naked, and all these tubes and buttons and machineries neither came into the world with us, nor will they follow us out, nor do they matter supremely while we are here. Had I been strong, I would have torn off every garment I had, and gone out into the outer air unswaddled. But this is not for me, nor perhaps for my generation. I climbed with my respirator and my hygienic clothes and my dietetic tabloids! Better thus than not at all.
I'm not going to spoil the ending for you. If you want to see what happens when the Machine stops, this story is available for free here, go forth and read it. It's not long and it's definitely a text worth engaging with.

1 comment:

  1. I read this at uni twice, at two different levels. Both times I found it to be really interesting, particularly when read alongside Howards End. I think it reflects and illuminates the Edwardian state of mind brilliantly. That's and it's a really good read!