E.M. Forster’s only science fiction-style short story, The Machine Stops, first published in 1909 in the Oxford and Cambridge Review, has had a rather quixotic critical afterlife. It was mostly ignored for much of the twentieth century, or treated as a youthful folly, inferior to Forster’s early novels and even to his other short stories. Writing in 1962, the academic K.W. Gransden commented that The Machine Stops was ‘the longest and most tedious of the stories’. It is ‘an Orwellian reaction to a Wellsian future with a curiously Kiplingesque ending’ (not to worry that Orwell was born in 1903, of course). The critic Alan Wilde wrote in 1965 that the story is ‘too schematic, too fanciful (rather than fantastic), too didactic’.
And yet, if the story is ‘too fanciful’, Forster makes no effort to disguise it. ‘Imagine, if you can,’ he begins, ‘a small room, hexagonal in shape like the cell of a bee’. The note of sly suggestion, ‘if you can’, is followed up with another authorial caveat: ‘at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds.’ ‘Meditation’, ‘if you can’, ‘imagine’: we already plunged into a world of fancy.
The fancy runs to 56 pages or so and can be read and digested in a couple of hours. We are transplanted into a future in which humanity has for the most part retreated from the surface of the earth to an underground system of small pods. Food is piped in, baths and beds are provided, along with music and lectures on art and history. ‘Vashti’, the incumbent of this ‘little room’, is barely recognisable as a human being. She is ‘a swaddled lump of flesh… face as white as a fungus’. Her son, ‘Kuno’, calls her up on the machine’s intercom. To her astonishment, he asks her to visit him in his pod, situated on the other side of the world. ‘Pay me a visit,’ he says, ‘so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my mind.’
In 1930, Forster wrote that ‘two people pulling each other into salvation is the only theme I find worthwhile’. And in The Machine Stops, these two unlikely heroes, Vashti and Kuno, these two lumps of flesh, develop into a quietly heroic pairing. Vashti makes her journey across the world, shuttled in an ‘air-ship service’. She is frightened by the light of the sun, shrinks from it at her window. But she makes it to Kuno’s pod. Kuno relates to her his ‘hopes’.
Kuno tells Vashti of his visions of the constellation of Orion: ‘I had an idea that they were like a man… The four big stars are the man’s shoulders and his knees.’ His admission that he would like to see the stars from ‘the surface of the earth’ shocks his mother, who tells him that the idea is ‘contrary to the spirit of the age’. His rebellion proceeds apace. He climbs up to the surface through a shaft, a chink in The Machine’s structure, using his muscles, developed from flesh through exercise in his pod. When he emerges, he sights the ‘low colourless hills’. They ‘were living’, he tells his mother ‘and the turf that covered them a skin, under which their muscles rippled’.
Written between roughly 1908 and 1914, Forster’s short stories appeared in two selections: The Celestial Omnibus, published in 1911, and The Eternal Moment, in 1928. Perhaps the most contemporaneously well-received of the selection was The Story of a Panic, a modern recasting of the Pan myth set in Italy – a pack of middle class English holiday-makers get more than they bargained for when they set out for a mini-break on the Amalfi coast. On a picnic, Pan makes his devastating influence felt by possessing one of the party.
Compared with the other short stories Forster wrote in this early period of his career, The Machine Stops reads much less fancifully than the rest – but what might have seemed wholly fanciful to Forster is apparently the world in which we now live. The Machine Stops has been heralded as a work of prophecy of, variously, pandemic-era social distancing, the internet, and globalisation. The BBC’s culture editor Will Gompertz, writing towards the end of the first UK lockdown in May 2020, said: ‘The Machine Stops is not simply prescient; it is a jaw-droppingly, gob-smackingly, breath-takingly accurate literary description of lockdown life in 2020.’ In a lecture on AI and the future of literature, Vint Cerf, a computer scientist who helped create the IP structure of the internet, commented: ‘Boy, does this [the novella] ever sound like everybody online on Zoom.’ The writer Paul Kingsnorth uses Forster’s ‘Machine’ as a catch-all term for the ‘global economy’ and its ‘interconnected nature’. In a blog published last year, he interpreted the gumming up of supply chains as a first sign that ‘the Machine’ might be beginning to falter.
We have a great network, a world-wide system, a machine, built to meet our every need and afford us every comfort. And yet we worry that life with the internet is a dull approximation of human experience. When Kuno laments that the machine has ‘robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch’, we tend to nod sagely. Forster’s machine is so brilliantly suggestive as a symbol for technologically advanced society. When thinking about the machine’s obvious dysfunction, its shiny exterior and the radiant atmosphere in the pods (sustained only by disgusting worms which repair breaks in its structure), I was reminded of the detritus generated by the modern internet: buy a bitcoin, and a great barn of filthy whirring servers in China springs into action, guzzling power emitted by burning coal mined from deep within the earth.
In seeing the stars, the sky and finding the strength to see them from the surface of the earth, Kuno finds what Forster called every man’s ‘magical island’. Often, he continues, ‘We call it a memory or a vision to lend it solidity, but it is neither really, it is the outcome of our sadness, and of the disgust with the world that we have made’. Kuno’s ‘magical island’ is of a piece with Forster’s lifelong myth-making about England and nature – he loved its hills, this island ‘lying as a jewel in a silver sea’. He saw in the ‘frosty glories of Orion’ a grand image of man united with the universe. Later in his life, Forster did indeed turn to disgust at the way in which the twentieth century had transformed the English countryside. In 1930, he wrote: ‘The England I loved has crumbled. I wish I did not regret her.’ In 1940, he lamented that we had covered ‘the face of England with rubbish’.
What was so suggestive to the author as a means of redemption for Kuno and Vashti – this Wessex-ism of hills and sky and stars – is less suggestive to us than Forster’s ‘meditation’ of The Machine. Kuno tells Vashti: ‘Happy the man, happy the woman, who awakes the hills of Wessex… I have no remedy – or, at least, only one – to tell men again and again that I have seen the hills of Wessex as Aelfrid saw them when he overthrew the Danes.’
Forster’s remedy is not so easily accessible to us, perhaps, in this atomic age. We know now that man has the power to flatten mountain ranges and to blast the hills themselves into the ether. In The Machine Stops, Forster invites us, if we can, to dream of our own magical islands. On seeing the hills of England, Kuno reflects: ‘For though they sleep, they will never die.’ We are less sure, perhaps, that there is an ‘England that will never die’. But no matter, we will always have Orion.