The Machine Stops

E.M. Forster is not known as a speculative fiction author, but his story “The Machine Stops” (originally published in 1909) is an extremely good example of dark science fiction from that era. It presents a post-apocalyptic world that initially appears to be a kind of utopia: peoples’ needs are entirely taken care of by the Machine they live in, and nobody suffers from material poverty or the horror of war and all are free to pursue sedentary leisure activities as they please.

But the reader quickly realizes that this futuristic world is a dystopia. People are largely limited to the small, automated cells they live in. Creativity and independent thought and action are discouraged and in some instances punished. There’s very little real human contact, and the main character reacts in horror and indignation to the idea that people might physically touch each other. People live far underground and believe the surface of the Earth is a wasteland.

Families as we know them don’t exist; the main character has a literally and figuratively distant relationship with her son Kuno and never had any kind of relationship with his biological father. Reproduction is entirely dictated by the Machine, and babies who are too strong at birth are euthanized on the premise that they would be too restless, unsuited to living a life of the mind in their cells.

In essence, people are forced to live like veal calves, and their lives are painfully stunted emotionally and spiritually, although of course few of them realize it. And, as the Machine breaks down, the lives of the people trapped inside it become worse and worse until utter disaster unfolds.

The story holds up well compared to other science fiction written even in the 1950s and in it the reader can see a rough prediction of modern-day technologies like the Internet, webconferencing/Skype, instant messaging, automated homes, stereo systems, and robots. I can see DNA of this story woven into a host of other science fictional narratives, especially media such as Star Trek (which mainly employs the purely utopian aspects), The Matrix, and my favorite heartwarming dystopian romance: WALL-E.

How does this story’s world building hold up so well? The key lies in how Forster conveys setting and technology. Namely, he restricts his descriptions to what his main characters can see, touch, and understand. And neither of them are engineers, so they witness the Machine functioning without having any real idea how the technology works.

Through their points of view, we see mechanisms and wires and tunnels and airships and it all comes off as fairly plausible because Forster doesn’t make the error of trying to minutely explain how all this would work. Such explanations would have a high risk of both bogging down the story and putting forth faulty scientific and technological premises. There’s quite a lot of hard science fiction from later decades that’s just hard to read because the scientific extrapolations just don’t hold water in light of current innovations and discoveries.

Not everything with regard to the world-building is perfect, of course. My suspension of disbelief faltered a bit when the story details the culture’s aversion to physical touch. In the real world, babies who aren’t held and cuddled are likely to die, and those that survive grow up with severe emotional and mental impairments. There’s been a lot of research on this in the latter part of the 20th Century, much sadly stemming from the study of the fates of children in crowded orphanages. But then I reconsidered: what’s to say that the Machine isn’t pumping oxytocin boosters and antidepressants into everybody’s fabricated food and drink? The main characters wouldn’t know that they were being routinely medicated because nobody questions what the Machine serves them. So I gave that a pass.

Ultimately, this story is a good study for writers who are looking for examples of narratives that explore the edges of science fictional ideas and in doing so create a more plausible world for the reader than if they’d attempted to go into exhaustive details about how everything works.

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