In a short story of 1928, E. M. Forster explores a future society in which Earth’s population live underground, every material need and “little want” is technologically met by “the Machine”, and life is watched over by “the Committee”.
Every country and every residence is exactly the same, rendering any journey outside of one’s own abode “superfluous”. The populace, of which we may presume the primary protagonist to be representative, is afraid of venturing outside. Furthermore, the outside provides no “ideas”.
Having repeatedly refused her son’s request to visit him, the protagonist eventually does so, though is unhappy about it.
“The sunlight almost touched me…”
In this excessively-automated future, physicality is unnecessary and – furthermore – undesirable:
Such is the structure of this society, that anything outside its automated scope is forbidden. As in every totalitarian society – both factual and fictional – deviation is perceived as destruction; “direct observation”, for example, is nothing more than a “disturbing element”. Take the mother’s response to her son’s traversing railway tracks:
“You are throwing civilization away.”
Indeed, the principle is plain:
“On atavism the Machine can have no mercy.”
Forster’s society is in ways akin to Aldous Huxley’s in Brave New World, which was published four years later in 1932. But what, one may ask, exactly is the threat posed by such clinical conformity and computation?
During World War II, American folk singer Woody Guthrie’s guitar donned the phrase “This machine kills fascists”, which had previously been painted across planes during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. However, in this world of technological supremacy, the Machine produces fascism (or, more generally, totalitarianism). In the words of the narrative’s atavistic youth:
We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through [the Machine’s] arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die. … We created the Machine … [but i]t has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch…
As in Huxley’s brave new world, love has been “narrowed down … to a carnal act”; here, the machine has “blurred every human relation” and “paralysed our bodies and our wills”.
However, ‘The Machine Stops’ is not focused exclusively on the methods of totalitarianism. Its focus is also on the madness that follows when the methods break down. To fully appreciate this, however, we must properly understand the source of the all-emcompasing, arbitrary power that is the Machine.
Indeed, at its heart, Forster’s story is about humanity’s dependence on machines – hence the title; for, what happens when the machine, upon which humanity is dependent, does actually stop?
In a sense, ‘The Machine Stops’ shares themes with George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945). Orwell’s “fairy tale” is itself concerned with the corrupting of revolution, and how those spearheading revolutionary action can end up assuming the same roles, and utilising the same methods, as those whom they have overthrown. In Forster’s tale, man – as is pointed out by the atavistic youth quoted above – “created the Machine, to do our will”, and whilst the Machine itself “develops” and “proceeds”, it now “compels” its creator(s) “to worship it”. Thus, in the same way that revolutionary masses may, as in – Animal Farm – latterly find themselves submitting to but another manifestation of power; in ‘The Machine Stops’, whilst man created the Machine, he has ceased to be able to “make it do [man’s] will”, and is instead enthralled to it.
So, what is the consequence of all this? What happens when the Machine stops?
That, of course, is for the reader to discover. But we may make one more (slight) observation.
On 3 August 1914, the day before Britain declared war on Germany, the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, remarked:
“The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
This, ominous and chilling as it would’ve been at the time, and remains over 100 years later, is a haunting metaphor. For in Forster’s tale, published fourteen years after Grey’s words, the ebbing of light is, to Forster’s protagonist, “the final horror”.
Technology today – in the form of nuclear weapons – does indeed possess a final, fatal threat; and E. M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’ is as urgent reading in the twenty-first century as it was in the first third of the twentieth. (Of course, the mechanised butchery of the First World War would be tragically surpassed by the industrialised slaughter of the Nazi Holocaust.)
Irrespective of method, totalitarianism forever consumes everything in its wake. Turning back to the spectre of technology: the urgent question for today is whether humanity will shed the beautiful garments it has woven or be strangled by them.
E. M. Forster, ‘The Machine Stops’, c.1928, in The Machine Stops (London: Penguin, 2011), pp. 49, 22, 21, 22, 24, 40, 27, 30, 34, 33, 53, 54.