The Machine Stops

EM Forster’s early and uncharacteristic novella, The Machine Stops (1909), describes a future community living underground and getting all its wants supplied by a great global machine that feeds them to it – food, communication, entertainment, etc – while they’re sitting comfortably, and getting fatter, in their comfy chairs. The plot begins when the machine suddenly stops working, and the main character – a woman, if I remember rightly – has to clamber up on to the surface to see what’s happening. She finds it inhabited by a sub-race of serfs dedicated to keeping the system going for the benefit of the subterranean privileged elite. (Political bells ringing here!) I can’t now remember how it ends; badly, I think. I do recall that Forster wrote it to counter HG Wells’s more utopian versions of the future.

I thought of this while suffering from the after-effects of my recent burglary (see, one of which was my being more or less cut off from the internet, and particularly from the site that allows me to blog here. Hence (again) the hiatus; and my non-response to comments. I can’t say I didn’t already know how reliant I was becoming on ‘the Machine’, but this drove it home. It also nearly made me mad; not the disconnection itself, but my (electronic) conversation with WordPress’s ‘Happiness Engineer’ (sic), sitting somewhere in California, I imagine, who was trying to help me put it right. I won’t go through the excruciating twists and turns of this dialogue – they might make you mad too, consisting as they did mainly in circularities (‘I don’t know my password’; ‘to retrieve your password, enter your password’….); suffice it to say that it all seems to be fixed now. (The test will be if this post goes up.)

In the meantime I’ve been living in a kind of limbo, unable to do any useful work, but, worse than that, shocked by how dependent I’ve become on a very clever but still inanimate device. And on the clever young people I need to help me with it. Are they Forster’s surface-dwellers? I must read the book again. It seems extraordinarily far-seeing. But of course this – the 1900s – was the great age of predictive Science-Fi.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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