Fear the Machine: EM Forster’s “The Machine Stops”
Edward Morgan Forster wrote only five published novels in his lifetime, all of them by the age of 45. A sixth, Maurice, about a homosexual relationship, though written in 1913, was not published until 1971, a year after his death, because Forster did not want to publicise his sexual orientation. It is for these novels, more than his short stories, that Forster is remembered, bolstered in recent years by the Merchant-Ivory film productions of his canon. Born in 1879, Forster’s father died of tuberculosis the following year, and he was raised under the heavy influence of his mother and other female relations, who shaped his perception, and later characterisation, of women. When his great-aunt died in 1887, she left Forster an £8000 legacy (worth about half a million pounds today) which allowed him to further his education at Tonbridge school in Kent, then King’s College, Cambridge. Forster was never quite comfortable with this privileged life handed to him, though, and most of his work reflected on the disparity between the classes in Edwardian England.
Four of his six novels were published before the First World War. Forster was very much a product of the early Modernist era, and after the war, plaintively stated that he no longer knew how to write novels for this post-War world. He instead turned towards literary theory and criticism, academic pursuits filling the rest of his long life. He also worked as president of the humanist society at Cambridge, and his humanist philosophies come out clearly in his work, especially in “The Machine Stops.” First published in The Oxford and Cambridge Review in November of 1909, the only science fiction story he ever wrote, as the genre was not exactly a popular one for the Modernists, who considered themselves above the likes of HG Wells. Forster himself said that “The Machine Stops is a reaction to one of the earlier heavens of HG Wells”, highlighting Forster’s concern about machines and technology encroaching into human life, making us dependent. Technology, seen by so many as liberation from labour and toil, was seen by Forster as a prison. I think Forster’s distrust of technology in 1909 was fairly prescient, years before the horrors of the First World War demonstrated the destructiveness of some modern advances. I found an interesting diary entry of his from January of 1908, when he must have been in the midst of writing ‘The Machine Stops’, or at the very least, contemplating the story:
Jan, 27 (1908) Last Monday a man – named Farman – flew a ¾ mile circuit in 1 ½ minutes. It’s coming quickly, and if I live to be old I shall see the sky as pestilential as the roads. It really is a new civilisation. I have been born at the end of the age of peace and can’t expect to feel anything but despair. Science, instead of freeing man – the Greeks nearly freed him by right feeling – is enslaving him to machines. Nationality will go, but the brotherhood of man will not come. No doubt the men of the past were mistaken in thinking ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ but the war of the future will make no pretence of beauty or of being the conflict of ideas. God what a prospect! The little houses that I am used to will be swept away, the fields will stink of petrol, and the airships will shatter the stars. Man may get a new and perhaps a greater soul for the new conditions. But such a soul as mine will be crushed out.
“The Machine Stops” is Forster’s own exegesis on the rapidly developing modern world, an exercise in the dystopic, or what should more rightly be called an anti-utopia. Whereas the world of Orwell’s 1984 is a totalitarian dystopia of misery, an order designed to create misery, the inhabitants of Forster’s anti-utopia are perfectly happy with the way that they live – it is just us, as readers, who see it as a nightmare. Many have compared this to a work of fantasy rather than science fiction, though I doubt Forster would have accepted either term for his story, the former genre relying – by his own definition – on the supernatural and mythic, the latter genre, not yet even christened. It is a unique piece that, by its own uniqueness, sees it rejected out of hand as something unworthy of Forster. In his lectures on ‘Aspects of the Novel’, Forster went on to define not just his sense of what is fantasy in fiction, but prophecy, and that is the best way to understand “The Machine Stops”. He says that readers are forced to contribute two qualities in reading a story of prophecy: ‘humility and the suspension of a sense of humour.’ Why humility? Because without it, ‘we shall not hear the voice of the prophet.’ And the sense of humour may cause us to laugh at the prophet, instead of listening.
“The Machine Stops” is set in a future where humanity resides in subterranean cells, separated even from family, fed, entertained, healed and interacting only through the Machine via armchairs from which they rarely move:
Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk — that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh — a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.
This pale lump of fleshy fungus is Vashti, our guide in this world. But you notice the tone of the omniscient narration, divorced from feeling? Forster is using this tone deliberately: the lack of feeling we have as readers is no different from the characters. And it is the technology that precipitates this divorce from feeling and connexion, seemingly no different from facebook or email or skype today:
An electric bell rang.
The woman touched a switch and the music was silent.
“I suppose I must see who it is”, she thought, and set her chair in motion. The chair, like the music, was worked by machinery and it rolled her to the other side of the room where the bell still rang importunately.
“Who is it?” she called. Her voice was irritable, for she had been interrupted often since the music began. She knew several thousand people, in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.
But when she listened into the receiver, her white face wrinkled into smiles, and she said: “Very well. Let us talk, I will isolate myself. I do not expect anything important will happen for the next five minutes — for I can give you fully five minutes, Kuno. Then I must deliver my lecture on ‘Music during the Australian Period’.”
She touched the isolation knob, so that no one else could speak to her.
Kuno is Vashti’s son, living on the other side of the world, under the hill of Wessex, because the Machine assigned him a cell there. We never see much in the way of maternal affection, but only because, as we learn, after applying for reproduction, children are taken and raised in nurseries by the Machine.
“What is it, dearest boy? Be quick. Why could you not send it by pneumatic post?”
“Because I prefer saying such a thing. I want—”
“I want you to come and see me.”
Vashti watched his face in the blue plate.
“But I can see you!” she exclaimed. “What more do you want?”
“I want to see you not through the Machine,” said Kuno. “I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”
h the Machine; nothing need be original or natural. This is, in part, Forster’s response to Oscar Wilde, who wrote in 1890: ‘As we become more highly organised, the elect spirits of each age, the critical and cultured spirits, will grow less and less interested in actual life, and will seek to gain their impressions almost entirely from what Art has touched.’ Oscar Wilde is recast as Vashti in the story, a woman who pursues only second-hand intellectual ideas from the comfort of an armchair, divorced from physical reality. Kuno, the antithesis, is Forster, looking for his reflection in the real world, one not obviated by the Machine. He calls his mother to him, and against her will, she makes the trip via airship halfway around the world, though the journey is dizzying and uncomfortable because she is forced to confront wide-open spaces.
So when Vashti found her cabin invaded by a rosy finger of light, she was annoyed, and tried to adjust the blind. But the blind flew up altogether, and she saw through the skylight small pink clouds, swaying against a background of blue, and as the sun crept higher, its radiance entered direct, brimming down the wall, like a golden sea. It rose and fell with the air-ship’s motion, just as waves rise and fall, but it advanced steadily, as a tide advances.
Unless she was careful, it would strike her face. A spasm of horror shook her and she rang for the attendant. The attendant too was horrified, but she could do nothing; it was not her place to mend the blind. She could only suggest that the lady should change her cabin, which she accordingly prepared to do.
To comfort herself, Vashti clings to her copy of The Book of the Machine, the bible of this society, and the Machine is God. To go against the Machine is to go against righteousness. The Machine commands that people shall live under the ground, in their cells, separated from touch, from smell, from space, and connected only via the mechanical threads of the Machine. This is why Vashti is so repulsed by the surface of the world, finds herself unable to comprehend the non-mechanical. Sometimes the parallels with our own society a hundred years on are almost uncomfortable to contemplate. We find ourselves now so enmeshed in the powers of computers and the internet that should these fail us, civilisation itself would fall. Without computers, there is no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel-injected engines, no phone calls, no credit card payments, no cashpoints. We have stepped beyond the mechanical that Forster envisioned, and now the mechanical is controlled by the digital.
The second part of the story is Kuno’s discovery of the outside world, Vashti’s rejection of her son as a threat to civilisation and the Machine. He has gone to see the surface of the world without respirator, without an egression permit, and without the aid of the Machine. It is perhaps this last that is so anathema to Vashti’s thinking, because Kuno has displayed both mental and physical independence.
“Except through the vomitories, for which one must have an Egression-permit, it is impossible to get out. The Book says so.”
“Well, the Book’s wrong, for I have been out on my feet.” For Kuno was possessed of a certain physical strength.
By these days it was a demerit to be muscular. Each infant was examined at birth, and all who promised undue strength were destroyed. Humanitarians may protest, but it would have been no true kindness to let an athlete live; he would never have been happy in that state of life to which the Machine had called him; he would have yearned for trees to climb, rivers to bathe in, meadows and hills against which he might measure his body. Man must be adapted to his surroundings, must he not? In the dawn of the world our weakly must be exposed on Mount Taygetus, in its twilight our strong will suffer euthanasia, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress eternally.
Forster is examining eugenics in a why the early 20th century eugenicists never considered: that what was once considered good, is now defective. The survival of a child is based upon their ability to conform to a world system that discourages athletics and independent thinking. Kuno’s independent thinking is leading him into trouble; in a society of agoraphobics, the agoraphilic is a threat to the world order.
“You know that we have lost the sense of space. We say ‘space is annihilated,’ but we have annihilated not space, but the sense thereof. We have lost a part of ourselves. I determined to recover it, and I began by walking up and down the platform of the railway outside my room. Up and down, until I was tired, and so did recapture the meaning of ‘Near’ and ‘Far.’ ‘Near’ is a place to which I can get quickly on my feet, not a place to which the train or the air-ship will take me quickly. ‘Far’ is a place to which I cannot get quickly on my feet; the vomitory is ‘far,’ though I could be there in thirty-eight seconds by summoning the train. Man is the measure. That was my first lesson. Man’s feet are the measure for distance, his hands are the measure for ownership, his body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong. Then I went further…
Kuno describes his exploration of the surface world, his realisaiton that the Machine, and its Book, are wrong. His mother accuses him of “throwing away civilisation”, but it is only civilisaiton as she is able to comprehend it. Kuno resists:
“Cannot you see, cannot all you lecturers see, that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the Machine? We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralysed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops — but not on our lines. The Machine proceeds — but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die. Oh, I have no remedy—or, at least, only one—to tell men again and again that I have seen the hills of Wessex as Ælfrid saw them when he overthrew the Danes…
Kuno is grasping for history, the first part of humanity that is erased in the rise of a dystopia or an anti-utopia. His mother cannot accept this part of her son, is embarrassed by him. But the significant clue of Kuno’s ability to escape to the surface of the earth without the aid of the Machine hints at the breaking down of the Machine. In his own way, Kuno is trying to warn his mother that the civilisation she is so assiduously supporting is on the verge of collapse. The third and final section of this relatively long short story is the inevitable catastrophe.
As for Vashti, her life went peacefully forward until the final disaster. She made her room dark and slept; she awoke and made the room light. She lectured and attended lectures. She exchanged ideas with her innumerable friends and believed she was growing more spiritual. At times a friend was granted Euthanasia, and left his or her room for the homelessness that is beyond all human conception. Vashti did not much mind. After an unsuccessful lecture, she would sometimes ask for Euthanasia herself. But the death-rate was not permitted to exceed the birth-rate, and the Machine had hitherto refused it to her. The troubles began quietly, long before she was conscious of them.
One day she was astonished at receiving a message from her son. They never communicated, having nothing in common, and she had only heard indirectly that he was still alive, and had been transferred from the northern hemisphere, where he had behaved so mischievously, to the southern—indeed, to a room not far from her own.
“Does he want me to visit him?” she thought. “Never again, never. And I have not the time.”
No, it was madness of another kind.
He refused to visualize his face upon the blue plate, and speaking out of the darkness with solemnity said:
“The Machine stops.”
“What do you say?”
“The Machine is stopping, I know it, I know the signs.”
As it must, the power begins to fail, the food ceases to come, the air is no longer circulating, and Vashti must venture beyond her door, into a catacomb, or hive, of tombs. But she is doomed, just like everyone else who lived underground, under the aegis of the Machine. Kuno does return for his mother, though it is too late.
“Where are you?” she sobbed.
His voice in the darkness said, “Here.”
“Is there any hope, Kuno?”
“None for us.”
“Where are you?”
She crawled over the bodies of the dead. His blood spurted over her hands.
“Quicker,” he gasped, “I am dying—but we touch, we talk, not through the Machine.”
He kissed her.
“We have come back to our own. We die, but we have recaptured life, as it was in Wessex, when Ælfrid overthrew the Danes. We know what they know outside, they who dwelt in the cloud that is the colour of a pearl.”
As he spoke, the whole city was broken like a honeycomb. An air-ship had sailed in through the vomitory into a ruined wharf. It crashed downwards, exploding as it went, rending gallery after gallery with its wings of steel. For a moment they saw the nations of the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of the untainted sky.
Contemporary reviewers were not so kind about “The Machine Stops”. In a 1938 book about Forster from Rose Macaulay, published by Virginia Woolf, Macaulay stated that ‘The Machine Stops, which shows fertile and graphic Wellsian inventiveness combined with Chestertonian machanophobia, in manner and matter is the least Forsterian of his writings. It has a Forster moral, but lacks charm, humour and style; it might have been written by someone else.’ I think Macaulay and other contemporaries failed to grasp what Forster was trying to accomplish with this story: “The Machine Stops” was not meant to be humorous or charming, because the world of the Machine is not humorous or charming, and that is the style. Had Macaulay had access to Forster’s journals, she undoubtedly would have seen that the story could come from no other hand by Forster’s. Alas, because Forster did not react well to criticism of his work, he never attempted another story like “The Machine Stops”, but before he died in 1970, I like to think that he could look on the world that emerged over six decades after he wrote it, and know that he was right.
 ‘It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country’, quoted from the Second Book of Odes by Horace.