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 https://bernardjporter.com/2017/09/20/burgled/), 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.

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