E.M. Forster’s 1909 fable, ‘The Machine Stops’ - which depicts a world state in which the inhabitants live inside vast underground cities, isolated from one another except for an electronic mass communications network - is a powerful story of technological alienation. The science fiction tale not only comments upon a burgeoning screen culture but also on our diminishing capacity to visualise and share an alternative reality, writes Paul March-Russel.
‘Imagine, if you can’. These are the opening words to E.M. Forster’s fable, ‘The Machine Stops’, which was first published in the Oxford and Cambridge Review in November 1909. With the exception of his novel, A Passage to India (1924), which remains of interest to postcolonial scholars, Forster’s standing has slipped within the academy. Too many Merchant and Ivory productions, perhaps. At the same time, though, Forster’s sole foray into scientific romance has grown in stature since the early 1990s.
The meaning of ‘The Machine Stops’ has proved remarkably multivalent. The story has long been a staple of science fiction anthologies and, in 1966, it was filmed by Philip Savile for the BBC’s anthology series, Out of the Unknown. Then, the story’s tale of a world state in which the inhabitants live inside vast underground cities, isolated from one another except for an electronic mass communications network overseen by the titular ‘Machine’, commented upon a burgeoning screen culture. The production complemented other screen-obsessed science fictions of the period, such as Michael Frayn’s A Very Private Life and Nigel Kneale’s The Year of the Sex Olympics (both 1968). Renewed interest in the story followed in the 1990s when it was taken up by cyber-theorists as a prescient account of virtual reality and the World Wide Web. By 2001, when Gregory Norminton adapted the story for BBC Radio 4, it had become a mordant warning about social isolation and gated communities. Nine years later, Randy Alfred’s Wired article read the story as an allegory for the limits of globalisation. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was routinely cited (alongside such texts as Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun  and J.G. Ballard’s ‘The Intensive Care Unit’ ) as an example of ‘lockdown fiction’. Rev Robert Willis, the former Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, read the story (ironically enough) on YouTube in 2020; in 2021, Paul Kingsnorth viewed the story through the lens of anthropogenic climate change; and only last weekend a new Radio 4 production was aired, dramatized by Philip Franks and starring Tamsin Greig. Along the way, ‘The Machine Stops’ has also been adapted to the stage, turned into a graphic novel and transformed into albums by Hawkwind and John Foxx.
It’s another prescient insight from Forster that, as more and more tasks are deferred to the Machine, personal time does not expand but contracts; alongside escalating signs of mental illness amongst the people.
All this attention would have surprised Forster. In his introduction to his collected short fiction in 1947, Forster focused upon his first published short story, ‘The Story of a Panic’ (1904), relegating all the other tales to requiring ‘little comment from their author’. Forster dismissed ‘The Machine Stops’ as ‘a reaction to one of the earlier heavens of H.G. Wells’, presumably A Modern Utopia (1905), although he could also have been thinking of the leisured Eloi in The Time Machine (1895) and the domed cities in ‘A Story of the Days to Come’ (1897) and When the Sleeper Wakes (1899). However, the estranging element that challenged Forster’s Edwardian readers, and which SF critics (following Ernst Bloch) term the novum, owes little to Wells. Forster’s depiction of the autonomous, automated world state may instead have been suggested by the story-within-a-story in Samuel Butler’s satirical utopia Erewhon (1872).
Butler had achieved posthumous success with his semi-autobiographical novel The Way of All Flesh (1903). One of the most frequently requested titles from the London Library in 1903 was Butler’s Erewhon, a book that Forster later called ‘a work of genius’. As so often in utopian fiction, a traveller encounters a topsy-turvy land that acts as a distorted reflection of his own. In particular, Butler’s protagonist discovers ‘The Book of the Machines’, a text that Alan Turing would later cite in his seminal essay, ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ (1950). The Book’s author suggests that, like plants such as the Venus flytrap which appear to be non-sentient, machines will gradually develop their own consciousness at the expense of their human masters, who will become reliant upon the machines for food, light and shelter. As elsewhere in Erewhon, accepted hierarchies are reversed: it is speculated that humans are no more than ‘a machinate mammal’, composed of ‘extra-corporeal limbs’ that multiply ‘the resources of the human body’. Forster’s own stroke of genius was to take this satirical observation and to literalise it; to take it at face value and imagine what a world dominated by the Machine would look like.
Despite the prescience that has been ascribed to both Butler and Forster, not least their premonitions of artificial intelligence and cyborg identities, it is important to contextualise them within their own times. Butler, in particular, was critiquing the soullessness of Darwinism which, from his perspective, reduced all creatures to the level of competitive automata. By contrast, Butler argued both for a spiritual interconnectedness between humans and other species, and an inherent will that evolves and develops, prefiguring the popular reception of Henri Bergson’s theory of the élan vital during the 1910s. Forster too was indebted to Victorian vitalist philosophies, not least Thomas Carlyle’s critique in 1829 of what he termed ‘Mechanism’, not merely mechanisation but the flattening and regimentation of people’s inner lives. In the work of Edward Carpenter, Forster found the expression of a physical (and homosexual) culture that he struggled otherwise to articulate in his private life. The novels that Forster wrote either side of ‘The Machine Stops’, A Room with a View (1908) and Howards End (1910), also engaged with these ideas. The very name of A Room’s protagonist, Lucy Honeychurch, embodies the tensions that Forster was grappling with – should Lucy taste life’s nectar or should she repress her desires, for fear of becoming another Lucy, the lonely and ghostly outlier in Wordsworth’s poems? The popular discourse of scientific romance offered Forster another means with which to explore these themes.
At the heart of ‘The Machine Stops’ is the mother-son relationship between Vashti and Kuno. Vashti’s maternal instinct has atrophied along with her physical appearance: she is no more than five foot tall, her skin is ‘as white as a fungus’, and she sees no point in moving when her automated chair can do it for her. (Despite the premonition of the future humans-as-couch-potatoes in the Pixar movie, Wall-E (2008), Forster’s critique is as much a part of contemporaneous degenerationist discourse as vitalist ones.) Vashti delivers on-screen lectures about art history for an anonymous mass audience but gives her son no more than ‘five minutes’. It’s another prescient insight from Forster that, as more and more tasks are deferred to the Machine, personal time does not expand but contracts; alongside escalating signs of mental illness amongst the people. Kuno, by contrast, has resisted the benefits of mechanisation – he walks, dawdles, physically exercises, declines to shave, and observes his surroundings. Above all, he imagines, for example about the night sky: ‘The four big stars are the man’s shoulders and his knees. The three stars in the middle are like the belts that men wore once, and the three stars hanging are like a sword.’ Yet, in this topsy-turvy world, Kuno’s request to become a father has been refused by the Committee of the Machine: ‘His was not a type that the Machine desired to hand on.’
Although the story’s remarkable prescience about mass communications, social isolation and technological domination has made it endlessly adaptable, it is Forster’s ethical argument that has given it durability.
As with other dystopias which ‘The Machine Stops’ prefigures, such as Charlotte Haldane’s Man’s World (1926) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), the logic of Forster’s world state is eugenic in design. But, whereas Haldane and Huxley are ambivalent about the role of eugenics, for Forster, it’s a zero-sum game. As Kuno’s refusal indicates, the Machine has no real interest in the future health and vitality of the human species; its purpose instead is to administer and maintain. Or, as Kuno exclaims, ‘if it could work without us, it would let us die’. In this key exchange between Kuno and Vashti, Forster stakes out his story’s central claim: that without the dynamism represented by Kuno – in evolutionary terms, the ability to change and adapt – the static life embodied by Vashti’s subservience to the Machine will inevitably stagnate and die. Although the story’s remarkable prescience about mass communications, social isolation and technological domination has made it endlessly adaptable, it is Forster’s ethical argument that has given it durability. Throughout the pandemic, and the social protest movements that have coincided with it (Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, Me Too), there has been the growing feeling that those in power do not have the public’s best interest at heart but, like the Machine, they seek to administer and manage the status quo. In Forster’s imaginary world, when the Machine (like any other entropic structure) begins to fragment, the people write complaints, argue amongst themselves, concoct conspiracy theories, scapegoat alleged enemies – in other words, the spiralling bile and hatred that we often see on social media today. What the people don’t do is rise up and revolt, until it’s too late.
Science fiction is often regarded (erroneously) as a predictive literature or a ‘literature of ideas’ (the phrase itself originates in Honoré de Balzac’s Lost Illusions [1837-43]). Very often, SF’s predictive ability is linked to gadgets and other technological developments, particularly by outsiders to the genre. Such a tendency not only limits the genre’s definition, it also exaggerates its predictive capacity. For, like the prophecies of Nostradamus, science fiction is more often wrong about the future than not but it can be endlessly read through our current concerns. So for example, 1980s cyberpunk still has considerable cultural cachet for understanding our technologically saturated present, even though William Gibson’s futuristic hackers all rely upon floppy disks. Conversely, John Brunner’s horrific The Sheep Look Up (1972), little known beyond the genre, may be the most telling depiction of climate change catastrophe. As the recent, posthumous success of Octavia Butler’s Parable novels indicate, genuinely prescient writers do not seek to predict the future but extrapolate from their historical moment, in Butler’s case, from US politics of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Forster too deals in brute incidents, striking images; ‘scraps’, as his narrator puts it, ‘of the untainted sky’. It is in these glimpses that Forster is most prescient, for his writing gestures towards something which was yet unseen but potentially utopian.
Much of the problem lies with that phrase ‘literature of ideas’. What ‘ideas’? For architects of pulp SF, such as Hugo Gernsback, they mostly meant gizmos. For post-war writers, they became the hook upon which the authors could analyse the social effects of technology (the triffids, although a harbinger of genetically modified crops, are really the least interesting thing in John Wyndham’s 1951 novel). More scrupulously, the word ‘idea’ is derived from the Greek ideîn, ‘to see’, or more accurately ‘to put into an image’ (imago, ‘to imitate’). A literature of images, then, which lends insight into our world but only by imitating another, more fantastical one. No wonder that science fiction is hard to define and, for many readers, a minority taste. No wonder either that, after Kuno has described to Vashti his idea of Orion’s Belt, ‘she doubt[s] there was much in it’. For Vashti, ideas are mechanical in design and utilitarian in function. For Kuno, ideas are images that speak to the poetic imagination: they find patterns in objects and detect places otherwise unseen. Science fiction, like other forms of romance, is not only a literature of images but also fragments: ‘the brute incident’, as Robert Louis Stevenson termed it, which is both distinct from yet completes the artistic whole. Forster too deals in brute incidents, striking images; ‘scraps’, as his narrator puts it, ‘of the untainted sky’. It is in these glimpses that Forster is most prescient, for his writing gestures towards something which was yet unseen but potentially utopian.
And so we return to Forster’s opening words. In a story about technological alienation, which speaks to our own recent (and, in several cases, continuing) confinement, Forster’s address to his reader is curiously direct and intimate. ‘Imagine, if you can’. But note the conditional – the implication that to imagine is already a struggle. Forster’s anxiety in 1909 was that the capacity of his readers to visualise and share an alternative reality was diminishing. Our anxiety now in 2022 should be whether this capacity has faded altogether, erased by social media technologies that create an ersatz community alongside silos of hatred, discontent, suspicion and despair.