Spring Break Short Story Recommendation 2022: “The Machine Stops”

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.

38 thoughts on “Spring Break Short Story Recommendation 2022: “The Machine Stops”

  1. Hm, interesting. I have read all of Forster’s novels but nothing else. I found his novels a very mixed bag. I disliked A Passage To India but thoroughly enjoyed Where Angels Fear To Tread and A Room With A View. Maurice was published only after his death because it was about a homosexual relationship and of course homosexuality was illegal in Britain until well into the 1960’s. Forster was himself homosexual. Although he is classed as a Modernist I am not sure he really makes a very good fit alongside the likes of T S Eliot, Joyce and Woolfe.

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    • I’m the opposite—I haven’t read any of Forster’s oeuvre except for this one story (at least, that I recall—I have read many short story anthologies, so chances are I have read some of his other stories and did not realize it).

      But, based on what on I know of him, I would agree: he does not seem to fit alongside Eliot, et. al.

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  2. I would be hard pressed to choose a favorite short story. But to this day I remember the worst book I ever read – Burnt Offerings. Don’t get me started …

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      • It started out with an interesting premise that you discovered by reading the first few chapters – the stately old home of the grandmother was being maintained by something that came from the grandmother herself. Something of her soul or spirit was making the house ‘perfect’. The daughter, in bringing the children to visit throughout the years, found herself more and more in love with the house; felt that it pulled at something within her that caused her to dislike leaving it. It goes on and you get deeper into how the house is wrapping itself around the daughter and the grandmother is failing so you sort of know what’s going to happen except the daughter has young children and how is that going to work out, etc, etc, etc. And then – she ended the story!!! No inclination as to what happened with the grandmother, no info on the children and the last scene is the daughter sitting in the same room and chair as the grandmother before her. End of story! I got so pissed, I actually yelled out loud, lol! It’s as if she either got tired of the story or didn’t know how to end it or maybe her editor’s deadline arrived and it had to get shipped off!!! I actually felt ripped off! I invested the time to read the dang thing and the author bails out! Hated it, hated it, hated it!!!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Good Lord! Sounds like a bad _Twilight Zone_ twist, but there’s not even a twist! It sounds like you were invested into the story overall, and seemed to enjoy it, but the lack of an ending left you so unfulfilled, it undid any appreciation you had of the novel. That’s why we were always told not to rip off our readers in writing classes—they’ll get mad!

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      • Mad??? I did enjoy it – I was right there with her … it could have gone in any number of directions. But no! Done! Shudder! As you can tell, I’m still pissed about it. Lol. Maybe I should get over myself.

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      • Audre, there is a very similar _Burnt Offerings_ film from 1976 in which a family pays $900 to stay in a rambling, shambling summer estate. The mother of the family grows obsessed with the house, and becomes incredibly protective of it.

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    • One of the worst novels, if not THE worst I have read was Fenimore Cooper’s Last Of The Mohicans. Loved the film with Daniel Day Lewis and all those semi naked Indians though. Oh and Anne Bronte’s The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. Appallingly bad.

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      • I’ve only ever read a children’s abbreviated version of _Last of the Mohicans_. I’m sorry to hear the book is a dud.

        _The Tenant of Wildfell Hall_ sounds promising. I guess you can’t judge a book by its title!

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  3. Short stories are my favourite format. Very easy to write and such a broad range, you can literally write about anything and make it interesting.

    The shorts of Phillip K D!ck are great (exclamation just in case of censor) and I have a few short story compendiums, one of my favourites the Bradbury collection which houses strange stories like Hotel Des Boobs – much grander than the name suggests and a lot to think about. Death and The Mirror by Angela Carter is a great story, as is The Destructers by James Joyce. Some of the short novels by Italo Calvino are great to read too. I’m currently reading The Castle of Crossed Destinies – a story where nothing happens and everything happens. Calvino, I’d definitely recommend. I’m also rereading the last Potter book and The Art of War by Sun Tzu. Of the hundreds of books and short stories we have, I reckon I’ve read a lot of most of them but not as many whole novels as I should. I spend half my life writing nowadays.

    Talking of shorts, I’m writing the titular short for my collection, In Love, but I’ll probably submit that to Neo’s fiction page. It’s been a while since I sent something to David.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree 100% with your assessment of short stories, Ponty. They are my favorite format, too (indeed, I wrote an entire book of them!: https://www.amazon.com/One-Minute-Mysteries-Inspector-Gerard-Ultimate/dp/B08ZBMR62T/).

      I read some Calvino in a postmodern literature course my final semester of college. I really enjoyed his work, and I think now I’d be better equipped to tackle it. I definitely want to read “Hotel Des Boobs.” Sounds like a bouncy story.

      I can’t wait to read your short story collection! Please let me know if/when you publish it. I will buy multiple copies. : D

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for the link, Tyler. We plan to jump back on Amazon again soon (DVDs, music and games) so I’ll see if we can order a copy of your collection.

        Yes, Calvino is excellent. Tina bought me a few more of his novellas to go with Our Ancestors and If On a Winter’s Night, A Traveller…, the 2 books of his I already owned. I’d recommend both works to anyone who likes their stories a little unusual. Personally, I like a story you can dissect, into many different and wide ranging conversations. Calvino is quite the philosopher.

        Hotel Des Boobs isn’t what you’d think. There’s some nice word play between narrator and reader and I like anything that makes you think outside the box.

        As for my short story collection, I have 3 or 4 knocking around the old head at present but I’m not overly concerned about when I get them down. The titular story is quite moving, suggestive but opaque and I can guarantee it’ll make Audre cry! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • No pressure, my friend—just couldn’t pass up another opportunity to shill my silly works.

        Thanks for the Calvino recommendations. I will check them out!

        Hahaha, yes, I figured “Hotel Des Boobs” isn’t a story about a big-breasted brothel. Still, what a great name!

        Opaque and tearful—I like it! Can’t wait to read them. If you ever want to publish a short story here, let me know!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. A lot of people tend to think that the advent of the detective story goes back to Conan Doyle but it goes back to Poe and Dupin. Practically every detective, whether early 20th century to later, will have been influenced by Dupin.

    I remember reading though that there was an early form of detective fiction in the 9th/10th century. I studied a lot from around that period when I was at university but I never found it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was going to say, there surely have had to have been stories with mysteries to be solved prior to Poe. But the genre as we know it now is definitely a nineteenth-century development, and reached its apex in the twentieth century.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The detective genre has been almost done to death but I reckon there are new ideas for this old environment. Tina has, mostly in planning, a great idea for a detective novel. When she’s ready, I have no doubt she’ll produce a stunning story and trust me, I don’t say that from bias. She’s an excellent writer. I await the day she finally puts something in print and you, and all your readers, will finally see why I value and praise her so highly.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. One man’s dud is another man’s treaure, Port.

    Novels are great to get invested in but you can feel just as immersed in a short story, if it’s done right. A short can be just as exhilarating as the longer form and can create just as much magic. It all comes down to how it is written.

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