As is my custom, I dedicate a few days each Spring Break to recommending and reviewing various short stories. Typically, I read through an anthology of short stories over break and highlight three or four of the best stories from them.
However, I neglected to take an anthology with me when I left town for Easter weekend, and I didn’t have the time to pluck one from my parents’ substantial library. So, I’m doing a one-off today (and possibly for other Spring Break Shorty Story Recommendation 2022 installments this week), although I am sure this story has appeared in many anthologies.
The story is E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” which I wrote about in brief in another post in April 2020, during the early days of The Age of The Virus. The Z Man wrote about it in one of his posts from the time, which intrigued me enough to read the story.
It is, I believe, one of the great works of prophetic science fiction. There’s a great deal of that from the mid-twentieth century; Forster was predicting things like FaceTime and social media in 1909.
“The Machine Stops” depicts a world in which humanity no longer dwells on the surface of the Earth, and instead lives underground in hexagonal cells, like those in a honeycomb. Every aspect of their lives is managed mechanically by a great Machine. The Machine assures that humanity is fed, watered, and protected. People—who have become pale-faced; the main character’s mother, Vashti, is described as “a swaddled lump of flesh — a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as white as a fungus”—spend their time communicating via little handheld “plates,” which give the general sense of the person on the other end.
It’s also implied that people are constantly online, as Vashti must activate the “isolation” knob on her plate when she begins talking to her son, Kuno, in order that others do not interrupt. Despite having literally nothing to do all day but chat with thousands of “friends” online and deliver lectures on “ideas,” Vashti is annoyed with her son’s interruption, as her plate has been pinging nonstop.
She’s also annoyed because her son asks her to take a visit around the world to see him, which would probably annoy most of us. That said, the Machine does allow travel on the surface via automatic airships. The airships travel at a leisurely pace around the globe (it takes about two days for Vashti to see her son), but most humans don’t bother; their thinking is, why travel when you can talk to other lumps of swaddled flesh online?
Nevertheless, Vashti—who hates the surface, the stars, and everything natural—makes the long trip to see her son. Once there, Kuno confesses that he is tired of depending upon the Machine and staying below ground all the time, and wishes to experience the world.
There are subtle hints that the Machine—which many, including Vashti, have come to worship—is not at its best. Vashti complains early in the story of the declining quality of food. The Mending Apparatus, which fixes problems that arise in the machine, begins to break down itself. The light in the tunnel leading from Vashti’s cell to the airships on the surface is not nearly as bright as it once was.
The ending is easy to predict—the Machine finally collapses in on itself, destroying most subterranean human life, leaving the remnants of “unmechanical” humans on the surface to rebuild civilization.
That said, the journey of this story is worth taking. The subtle details, the growing sense of dread, and Kuno’s own adventure to the surface—with the slightest hint that human life exists in a place that subterranean cell dwellers can only visit with respirators—all take the reader on a chilling ride into a future not unlike our own. We’ve grown paradoxically more connected and more isolated, especially after the long years of The Age of the Virus.
Increasingly, we reject first-hand experience for the discussion of abstract “ideas.” We eat overly processed foods in overly large quantities (yours portly is certainly guilty of this gluttonous habit) and depend upon faceless supply chains to provide our needs.
But machines—like supply chains and humans—break down. FaceTime is nice, but it’s no replacement for face-to-face interactions. Learning from books and blogs is great, but experiencing something first-hand and growing from it truly stimulates intellectual and personal growth.