The Machine Stops

Given the current confinement imperative, one is confronted everywhere with the idolization of detached digital communication, turning necessity into a virtue.

Given the authoritarian tendencies of governments everywhere, it is timely to resurrect a short story by E. M. Forster called ‘The Machine Stops’. The story was written in 1908, published in late 1909 in a low-circulation magazine, and belatedly published in a collection, The Eternal Moment and Other Stories, in 1928.

Here follow excerpts from Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’.

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 arm-chair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk – that is all the furniture. And in the arm-chair 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.

An electric bell rang. ‘Who is it?’ Her voice was irritable, for she had been interrupted often. ‘I can give you fully five minutes, Kuno. Then I must deliver my lecture on “Music during the Australian Period”.’

‘I want to see you not through the Machine,’ said Kuno. ‘Oh hush’, said his mother, ‘You mustn’t say anything against the Machine’.

‘Mother’, you must come, if only to explain to me what is the harm of visiting the surface of the earth.’ ‘No harm’, she replied. ‘But no advantage. The surface of the earth is only dust and mud, no life remains on it, and you would need a respirator. And besides, it is contrary to the spirit of the age’, she answered.

The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world. [S]he switched off her correspondents, for it was time to deliver her lecture on Australian music. The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned. Her lecture was well received.

By her side, on the little reading-desk, was a survival from the ages of litter – one book. This was the Book of the Machine. In it were instructions against every possible contingency. The Central Committee published it.

Sitting up in the bed she took it reverently in her hands. Her ritual performed, she turned to page 1367, which gave the times of the departure of the air-shops from the island in the southern hemisphere, under whose soil she lived, to the island in the northern hemisphere, whereunder lived her son.

Of course, she knew all about the communication-system. There was nothing mysterious in it. She would summon a car and it would fly with her down the tunnel until it reached the lift that communicated with the air-ship stations; the system had been in use for many years, long before the universal establishment of the Machine. Few traveled 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 Pekin when it was just like Shrewsbury? The air-ship service was a relic from the former age, but it now far exceeded the wants of the population.

Night and day, wind and storm, tide and earthquake, impeded man no longer. He had harnessed Leviathan. All the old literature, with its praise of Nature, and its fear of Nature, rang false as the prattle of a child.

Yet as Vashti saw the vast flank of the ship, stained with exposure to the outer air, her horror of direct experience returned. For one thing it smelt. Inside, her anxiety increased.

‘Those mountains to the right – let me show you them.’ [The attendant] pushed back a metal blind. ‘And that white stuff in the cracks? – what is it?’ ‘I have forgotten its name.’ ‘Cover the window please. These mountains given me no ideas.’ ‘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.

[B]y reversing all the steps of her departure did Vashti arrive at her son’s room, which exactly resembled her own. She might well declare that the visit was superfluous.

‘I have been threatened with Homelessness’, said Kuno. ‘But why shouldn’t you go outside?’ she exclaimed. ‘It is perfectly legal, perfectly mechanical, to visit the surface of the earth.’

‘I found out a way of my own’. The phrase conveyed no meaning to her, and he had to repeat it. ‘A way of your own?’ she whispered. ‘But that would be wrong.’ ‘Why?’ The question shocked her beyond measure.

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.

‘I felt, for the first time [said Kuno], that a protest had been lodged against corruption, and that even as the dead were comforting me, so I was comforting the unborn. [H]umanity 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.’

‘I felt that those hills had called with incalculable force to men in the past, and that men had loved them. Now they sleep – perhaps for ever. They commune with humanity in dreams. 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.’

[H]is story ended. Discussion of it was impossible, and Vashti turned to go. ‘It will end in Homelessness,’ she said quietly. ‘I wish it would,’ retorted Kuno. ‘The Machine has been most merciful’ [she replied].

During the years that followed Kuno’s escapade, two important developments took place in the Machine.

The first of these was the abolition of respirators. Advanced thinkers, like Vashti, had always held it foolish to visit the surface of the earth. The habit was vulgar and perhaps faintly improper: it was unproductive of ideas, and had no connexion with the habits that really mattered. So respirators were abolished.

‘Beware of first-hand ideas!’, exclaimed [a lecturer]. ‘First-hand ideas do not really exist. They are but the physical impressions produced by love and fear, and on this gross foundation who could erect a philosophy?’ ‘[T]here will come a generation that has got beyond facts, beyond impressions, a generation absolutely colourless, a generation seraphically free from taint of personality.’

The second great development was the re-establishment of religion. ‘The Machine feeds us and clothes us and houses us; through it we speak to one another, through it we see one another; in it we have our being. The Machine is the friend of ideas and the enemy of superstition: the Machine is omnipotent, eternal; blessed is the Machine.’ And before long this allocution was printed on the first page of the Book.

To such a state of affairs, it is convenient to give the name of progress. No one confessed the Machine was out of hand. Year by year it was served with increased efficiency and decreased intelligence. Those master brains had perished. But Humanity, in its desire for comfort, had overreached itself. It had exploited the riches of nature too far. Quietly and complacently, it was sinking into decadence, and progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine.

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. ‘The Machines is stopping. I know it, I know the signs.’ ‘Can you imagine anything more absurd?’, she cried to a friend. ‘The Machine is stopping?’ her friend replied. The phrase conveys nothing to me.’ ‘Nor to me.’

‘He does not refer, I suppose, to the trouble there has been lately with the music?’ ‘Have you complained to the authorities?’ ‘Yes, and they say it wants mending, and referred me to the Committee of the Mending Apparatus. The Committee of the Mending Apparatus say that it shall be remedied shortly.’ ‘Have others complained?’ This question was unmechanical, and the Committee of the Mending Apparatus refused to answer it.

Time passed, and they resented the defects no longer. The defects had not been remedied, but the human tissues in that latter day had become so subservient that they readily adapted themselves to every caprice of the Machine. The sigh at the crisis of the Brisbane symphony no linger irritated Vashti; she accepted it as part of the melody.

It was otherwise with the failure of the sleeping apparatus. ‘Someone is meddling with the Machine’, they began. ‘Someone is trying to make himself king, to reintroduce the personal element.’

But there came a day when, without the slightest warning, without any previous hint of feebleness, the entire communication-system broke down, all over the world, and the world, as they understood, ended.

Man, the flower of all flesh, the noblest of all creatures visible, man who had once made god in his image, and had mirrored his strength on the constellations, beautiful naked man was dying, strangled in the garments that he had woven. Century after century had he toiled, and here was his reward.

‘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 towards him over the bodies of the dead. ‘Quicker’, he gasped, ‘I am dying – but we touch, we talk, not through the Machine.’ He kissed her.

For a moment, they saw the nations of the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of the untainted sky.

* * *

When ‘The Machine Stops’ was made available to a larger audience in 1928, it was met with pervasive condescension and amusement. Some examples.

An anonymous reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement:

“And when the machine stops, this slightly didactic fancy closes with a frank moral.”

Rachel Taylor, in the Spectator, was kind but dismissive:

“… his is a satire of dreadful gentleness which nearly dissolves one’s conviction that the revolt against the machine has already begun. But it just fails to convince, because one knows that the genius for rebellion is much stronger in most people than in Mr. E. M. Forster’s conscious and uncertain characters, whom he himself often regards with so little enthusiasm.”

‘C. M.’ in the Manchester Guardian, opined:

“The Machine Stops fails to convince us that a machine so inefficient ever began – much less obtained mastery of the world – since it is still at the stage of telephone receivers and pneumatic posts. … But the chief interest of these stories is as showing the inventive stage, intelligent but crude and stiff in adjustment, of a writer who has passed on to creation.”

Edwin Muir wrote in Nation & Atheneum:

“The Machine Stops is also unconvincing. … he is writing of the future; and that future, as it is ours, must be conceivable in terms of the world we know. Mr. Forster’s picture of the future is quite inconceivable, however. … Perhaps Mr. Forster’s imagination is rather clogged here with sociological notions.”

Edith Sitwell, replying to Forster’s gift of a copy of the collection, was kinder.

“The Machine Stops made me feel as though I had come out of a dark tunnel in which I had always lived, into an immense open space, and were seeing things living for the first time. I believe it is the most tremendous short story of our generation.”

And Mary Ross, in the New York Herald Tribune, noted insouciantly:

“By amusing coincidence the week that this volume of stories is published in America the Americans newspapers are blaring the beauties of a machine which sells you cigarettes automatically, making change, offering the appropriate change and certificate, and even its mechanical ‘thank you’ and the advertising slogan of the brand you select.”

Astute commentators noted that Forster was responding to the contemporary literary utopias of Edward Bellamy and H. G. Wells, with (according to the novelist Rose Macaulay) a touch of ‘Chestertonian mechanophobia; in manner and matter it is the least Forsterian of his writings’. Mechanophobia indeed, and salient regarding conventional Forster’s literary persona (albeit Forster returned to his ‘sociological’ themes in Two Cheers for Democracy).

But Forster was also apparently influenced by Thomas Carlyle. Forster reproduces Carlyle in resolving the story (a ‘frank moral’). Kuno is effectively mouthing Carlyle – man ‘is by nature a Naked Animal; and only in certain circumstances, by purpose and device, masks himself in clothes’.

* * *

‘The Machine Stops’ is 112 years old. It predates Evgenii Zamiatin’s We (1922), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949). A rather visionary dystopia, I would have thought.

South-eastern Australia suffered a bushfire holocaust of unparalleled ferocity in the new year. Power went out, phone towers were disabled, businesses closed. Commercial exchange was impossible, communication near-impossible, before things got gradually back to ‘normal’. And the experts of our age want to make transport dependent on electric vehicles.

Avid disciples of the digital age, consider the prospect that there will be a day when the Machine stops.

Evan Jones is a retired political economist from the University of Sydney. He can be reached