The Machine Stops by EM Forster

I was straightforwardly gobsmacked when I first read this story . Wow. Here is our world, described one hundred years before it happens. These are just a few samples that particularly appealed to me. I don’t want to give away the story and there are lots of other interesting ideas about the future, including, indeed, the idea of the idea that I will leave you to discover for yourselves,

“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.

Modern life indeed.

On the subject of us accepting what is inferior but convenient, interpolating the machine in our relationships with each other.

In this world all people live in isolation in their rooms with technology supplying everything. Kuno is her son and wishes to see her. When she exclaims that he is seeing her, he replies:

“I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That is why I want you to come.”

And

The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms. Seated in her armchair she spoke, while they in their armchairs heard her, fairly well, and saw her, fairly well.

On globalisation:

Few travelled 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 Peking when it was just like Shrewsbury? Why return to Shrewsbury when it would all be like Peking? Men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul.

On modern selection of foetuses, which shall live and which shall die, a process during which we believe ourselves to be morally correct:

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?

And, close to my heart, on the nature of the revision of history according to the contemporary mores of the revisionist:

“And even the lecturers acquiesced when they found that a lecture on the sea was none the less stimulating when compiled out of other lectures that had already been delivered on the same subject. “Beware of first- hand ideas!” exclaimed one of the most advanced of them. “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? Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element – direct observation. Do not learn anything about this subject of mine – the French Revolution. Learn instead what I think that Enicharmon thought Urizen thought Gutch thought Ho-Yung thought Chi-Bo-Sing thought Lafcadio Hearn thought Carlyle thought Mirabeau said about the French Revolution. Through the medium of these ten great minds, the blood that was shed at Paris and the windows that were broken at Versailles will be clarified to an idea which you may employ most profitably in your daily lives. But be sure that the intermediates are many and varied, for in history one authority exists to counteract another. Urizen must counteract the scepticism of Ho-Yung and Enicharmon, I must myself counteract the impetuosity of Gutch. You who listen to me are in a better position to judge about the French Revolution than I am. Your descendants will be even in a better position than you, for they will learn what you think I think, and yet another intermediate will be added to the chain. And in time” – his voice rose – “there will come a generation that had got beyond facts, beyond impressions, a generation absolutely colourless, a generation

seraphically free
From taint of personality,

which will see the French Revolution not as it happened, nor as they would like it to have happened, but as it would have happened, had it taken place in the days of the Machine.”

On the modern loss of silence:

Then she broke down, for with the cessation of activity came an unexpected terror – silence.
She had never known silence, and the coming of it nearly killed her – it did kill many thousands of people outright.

It would be hard to imagine something more apposite for people now to read. You can find a pdf here and LibriVox has a free audio version here.

3 thoughts on “The Machine Stops by EM Forster

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