The Machine Stops by EM Foster (1909)

E.M. Foster isn’t a name you associate with science fiction, middle class gels in Florence or Surrey being more his milieu. And yet his short story, The Machine Stops (1909), regularly appears in lists of top sci-fi stories. In the preface to his Collected Short Stories, Forster sardonically commented that ‘The Machine Stops is a reaction to one of the earlier heavens of H. G. Wells.’ Maybe he’s referring to Wells’s ‘A Modern Utopia’, published in 1905, though it’s an odd comment because Wells was just as capable of portraying dystopias as utopias, The Time Machine (1895) being the first in a long line which portray the future as not at all idyllic.

I was surprised how little I was surprised by The Machine Stops. In the future all humanity lives in cells under the ground, cocooned in complete isolation from each other and content to communicate via telescreens. Every need and want is provided by The Machine.

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk-that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh-a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.

Now, what would you expect to happen next? I’d expect someone to realise how unnatural this life is and want to rebel, to escape, just as in Brave New World or 1984 or The Matrix. I’d expect this revolt to highlight the depths of pitiful dependency into which humanity has fallen, to assert some deep, spiritual need for people to feel the sun on their faces and the fresh air in their lungs etc. I’d expect their nearest and dearest to be scandalised, to try and protect them from themselves; I’d expect there to be set-piece debates between defenders of the Machine, emphasising how it has ended war and conflict and brought ‘peace’, and the young rebel to spit “Peace? You call this life without colour and passion, peace?” I’d expect the act of rebellion to lead to the sudden collapse of the System, the end of the Machine, the death of the old life, but a consoling sense that the future belongs back with dwellers on the earth’s surface, ‘real’ people, ‘authentic’ humans, who will have to start again, to build a new, truer civilisation.

And that is exactly what does happen.

“But Kuno, is it true ? Are there still men on the surface of the earth ? Is this – tunnel, this poisoned darkness – really not the end?”

He replied:

“I have seen them, spoken to them, loved them. They are hiding in the mist and the ferns until our civilization stops. Today they are the Homeless – tomorrow —— “

“Oh, tomorrow – some fool will start the Machine again, tomorrow.”

“Never,” said Kuno, “never. Humanity has learnt its lesson.”

As he spoke, the whole city was broken like a honeycomb. An air-ship had sailed in through the vomitory into a ruined wharf. It crashed downwards, exploding as it went, rending gallery after gallery with its wings of steel. For a moment they saw the nations of the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of the untainted sky.

For some readers these may come as completely new ideas and wherever you meet them for the first time, I guess that’s where you’ll attribute their biggest impact, that book or film will always have power for you. But at my age and having read hundreds of sci-fi books and seen scores of sci-fi films, these feel like platitudes and cliches. I didn’t find the story remotely interesting, I was only interested in how Foster handled it, in his prose style, and in the sidelight it cast on the ideas of his time.

TV adaptation

There’s a fabulous 1966 b&w TV adaptation. Surprisingly faithful, with wonderful early Dr Who sets and special effects, complete with mechanical worms!

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