Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Review: The Machine Stops

If improving man proves impossible, then the logical recourse is to improve his machines. Why bother making the human body faster and stronger or the human mind more clever when it is easier and less time consuming to improve all of the communications and labour saving devices that serve man until there is literally no reason for improvement–or to do anything at all.

That was the idea behind E. M. Forster's 1909 short story The Machine Stops, which describes a time in the distant future when technology fulfills every need and whim of the human race and everyone lives in identical cells about the size of a small hotel room that are stuffed to the rafters with every conceivable device to make life easier and more pleasant. Communication and data retrieval systems bring any person or any piece of information from anywhere on the globe instantly. Food, clothing, entertainment and anything else that one might desire is obtainable at the mere press of a button. If one even drops a glove there's no need bend over to pick it up because the floor section will rise to return it to one's hand. The whole of humanity does nothing all day except sit or lie about as the Machine tends their every need.

That is, until, as you might have guessed from the title, the Machine stops. Then everyone looks pretty silly.

But I wouldn't laugh too much yourself until you tally up how many hours a day you spend staring at this thing and decide to go out and get a bit of exercise.

The story follows a woman named Vashti, who has lived a pleasant existence despite the fact that she has rarely left her tiny room and hasn't done so in many years. As the Machine tends to her every need, Vashti spends her days chasing after "new ideas", which generally involve discussions about the history of various forms of music, and talking to her friends over the videophone. Hers would be an idyllic life if it weren't for the minor breakdowns of the Machine and calls from her son Kuno. She hasn't seen him in person for years, but he insists on sharing his wild ideas about life Outside and his belief that one day the Machine will cease functioning–a belief that soon proves to be prophetic.

Written just over a century ago, Forster's story is remarkable in its prediction of our modern society where most people are utterly dependent on the vast industrial network for mere survival. Imagine what a modern city like London or New York or Seattle would be like if the services that supply electricity, food, water, sanitation, and all the rest shut off. Any major metropolis would be uninhabitable within a week and the population reduced to a mass of refugees who faced the prospect of fleeing to the country or dying in the streets. Forster also foresaw our world of instant global communications where many people's "friends" are only seen over the Internet and where the loss of the cyberlink would leave many staring at their iphones in blind panic. What's truly astonishing is how quickly that world has come about.

Forster's world of the Machine is also an oddly "green" place. One of the common tropes of the environmentalists is that man is a plague upon the Earth and it would be better for all concerned if we ceased to be. In The Machine Stops, man has abandoned the surface of the planet in favour of gigantic, self-contained underground hives that hardly warrant the name of city. They are sustainable, self-perpetuating, and make no demands upon the outside world, which is allowed to grow wild and is disturbed only by the occasional airship gliding from city to city. Human beings have separated themselves so utterly from the outside that they cannot even breathe the air without respirators.

They are even fulfilling the most radical of green demands. The human race is dying out. They have lost all interest in their surroundings and even in maintaining the great Machine that feeds and tends to them all. Thus, at the end of the story Vashti and Kuno find themselves reunited in a darkened corridor along with a crush of dying humanity as the machines crash to a halt all about them. Only a handful of surface-dwelling exiles that Kuno encountered on an illegal visit outside are left to carry on the race–hopefully, having learned their lesson.

Hopefully, we can learn it as well.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for bringing this remarkable story to my attention once again. I read it some 30 years ago and never could seem to place my hands on a copy since.
    Now of course I can read it at my leisure via the machine.