The Machine Stops

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‘The Machine Stops’ is a science fiction short story written in 1909 by E. M. Forster, who known for his ironic and well-plotted novels examining class difference and hypocrisy in early 20th-century British society. After initial publication in ‘The Oxford and Cambridge Review,’ the story was republished in Forster’s ‘The Eternal Moment and Other Stories’ in 1928. It is particularly notable for predicting new technologies such as instant messaging and the Internet.

Forster describes a world in which most of the human population has lost the ability to live on the surface of the Earth. Individuals lives in isolation below ground in a standard ‘cell,’ with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global ‘Machine.’ Travel is permitted but unpopular and rarely necessary. Communication is made via a kind of instant messaging/video conferencing machine called the speaking apparatus, with which people conduct their only activity: the sharing of ideas and what passes for knowledge.

The two main characters, Vashti and her son Kuno, live on opposite sides of the world. Vashti is content with her life, which, like most inhabitants of the world, she spends producing and endlessly discussing secondhand ‘ideas.’ Kuno, however, is a sensualist and a rebel. He persuades a reluctant Vashti to endure the journey (and the resultant unwelcome personal interaction) to his cell. There, he tells her of his disenchantment with the sanitized, mechanical world. He confides to her that he has visited the surface of the Earth without permission and that he saw other humans living outside the world of the Machine. However, the Machine recaptured him, and he has been threatened with ‘Homelessness,’ that is, expulsion from the underground environment and presumed death. Vashti, however, dismisses her son’s concerns as dangerous madness and returns to her part of the world.

As time passes, and Vashti continues the routine of her daily life. However, eventually the life support apparatus required to visit the outer world is abolished. Most welcome this development, as they are skeptical and fearful of first-hand experience and of those who desire it. Additionally, a kind of religion is reestablished, in which the Machine is the object of worship. People forget that humans created the Machine, and treat it as a mystical entity whose needs supersede their own. Those who do not accept the deity of the Machine are viewed as ‘unmechanical’ and threatened with Homelessness. The ‘Mending Apparatus’ – the system charged with repairing defects that appear in the Machine proper – has also failed by this time, but concerns about this are dismissed in the context of the supposed omnipotence of the Machine itself.

During this time, Kuno is transferred to a cell near Vashti’s. He comes to believe that the Machine is breaking down, and tells her cryptically, ‘The Machine stops.’ Vashti continues with her life, but eventually defects begin to appear in the Machine publicly. At first, humans accept the deteriorations as the whim of the Machine, to which they are now wholly subservient. But the situation continues to deteriorate, as the knowledge of how to repair the Machine has been lost. Finally the Machine apocalyptically collapses, bringing ‘civilization’ down with it. Kuno comes to Vashti’s ruined cell, however, and before they perish they realize that Man and his connection to the natural world are what truly matter, and that it will fall to the surface-dwellers who still exist to rebuild the human race and to prevent the mistake of the Machine from being repeated.

In the preface to his ‘Collected Short Stories’ (1947), Forster wrote that ”The Machine Stops’ is a reaction to one of the earlier heavens of H. G. Wells.’ Although not all Wells’s stories were optimistic about the future, this implies Forster was concerned about human dependence on technology.

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