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Title of a short story by British author E.M. Forster. Published in the Oxford and Cambridge Review in 1909, "The Machine Stops" was one of the first anti-technological dystopias. Forster's story portrays a world in which individuals live in cells inside a giant machine which provides everything for them. In addition to the similarities between the machine and the welfare state, Forster's story also predicts the information overload many contend is taking place today. Despite the bleakness of his initial situation, there is a glimmer of hope, as the characters escape the machine by the end of the story.

"The Machine Stops" set several of the trends that would appear in later, more popular dystopias such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984, and Zamyatin's We, including the draconian enforcement, and the isolation and worship of the state. In addition, according to some critics, "The Machine Stops" also set the trend for the early liberal/humanist opposition to technology. Personally, however, I suspect that Forster's machine was primarily an analogy for a state, and that his story was never intended to be particularly anti-technological.

Science Fiction: the Science Fiction Research Anthology was consulted in the preparation of this node.

E.M. Forster is not known as a speculative fiction author, but his story “The Machine Stops” (originally published in 1909) is an extremely good example of dark science fiction from that era. It presents a post-apocalyptic world that initially appears to be a kind of utopia: peoples’ needs are entirely taken care of by the Machine they live in, and nobody suffers from material poverty or the horror of war and all are free to pursue sedentary leisure activities as they please.

But the reader quickly realizes that this futuristic world is a dystopia. People are largely limited to the small, automated cells they live in. Creativity and independent thought and action are discouraged and in some instances punished. There’s very little real human contact, and the main character reacts in horror and indignation to the idea that people might physically touch each other. People live far underground and believe the surface of the Earth is a wasteland.

Families as we know them don’t exist; the main character has a literally and figuratively distant relationship with her son Kuno and never had any kind of relationship with his biological father. Reproduction is entirely dictated by the Machine, and babies who are too strong at birth are euthanized on the premise that they would be too restless, unsuited to living a life of the mind in their cells.

In essence, people are forced to live like veal calves, and their lives are painfully stunted emotionally and spiritually, although of course few of them realize it. And, as the Machine breaks down, the lives of the people trapped inside it become worse and worse until utter disaster unfolds.

The story holds up well compared to other science fiction written even in the 1950s and in it the reader can see a rough prediction of modern-day technologies like the Internet, webconferencing/Skype, instant messaging, automated homes, stereo systems, and robots. I can see DNA of this story woven into a host of other science fictional narratives, especially media such as Star Trek (which mainly employs the purely utopian aspects), The Matrix, and my favorite heartwarming dystopian romance: WALL-E.

How does this story’s world building hold up so well? The key lies in how Forster conveys setting and technology. Namely, he restricts his descriptions to what his main characters can see, touch, and understand. And neither of them are engineers, so they witness the Machine functioning without having any real idea how the technology works.

Through their points of view, we see mechanisms and wires and tunnels and airships and it all comes off as fairly plausible because Forster doesn’t make the error of trying to minutely explain how all this would work. Such explanations would have a high risk of both bogging down the story and putting forth faulty scientific and technological premises. There’s quite a lot of hard science fiction from later decades that’s just hard to read because the scientific extrapolations just don’t hold water in light of current innovations and discoveries.

Not everything with regard to the world-building is perfect, of course. My suspension of disbelief faltered a bit when the story details the culture’s aversion to physical touch. In the real world, babies who aren’t held and cuddled are likely to die, and those that survive grow up with severe emotional and mental impairments. There’s been a lot of research on this in the latter part of the 20th Century, much sadly stemming from the study of the fates of children in crowded orphanages. But then I reconsidered: what’s to say that the Machine isn’t pumping oxytocin boosters and antidepressants into everybody’s fabricated food and drink? The main characters wouldn’t know that they were being routinely medicated because nobody questions what the Machine serves them. So I gave that a pass.

Ultimately, this story is a good study for writers who are looking for examples of narratives that explore the edges of science fictional ideas and in doing so create a more plausible world for the reader than if they’d attempted to go into exhaustive details about how everything works.

I often have the same response to reading older science fiction: wow writers in the past were stupid/crazy. Obviously it is unfair to apply hindsight to a work as though content of the Twenty First Century and beyond are somehow intuitively obvious but I still find myself wanting to reach back through time, grab the author, and tell them "that's not how that works" with regards to several of the assumptions about humanity and society. I had the same response to Edward Bellamy's Looking Back which is so much more egregious in its presentation of it's future and our recent past.

So what in this story grates against my Twentieth First Century sensibilities? Well for starters everything created by the society of the machine is one size fits all. To quote the text: "for beds were of the same dimension all over the world, and to have had an alternative size would have involved vast alterations in the Machine." While I can understand irritation with the massive standardization occurring everywhere the author also would have seen new products showing up at a terrific rate. From what details I can glean from the story the machine society appears to be equal to or higher than us on the Kardashev scale so it's not an issue of resources. What forces shaped history such that the Machine would be built with no variety and no simple way of changing it to meet peoples needs. The same basic question can be asked about the cinematophote not showing faces in detail or transmitting voices faithfully. The assumption seems to be that people will think that good enough is good enough. I admit to ignorance on the finer points of the societal mindset of 1909 but in what world does the whole Planet just give up on progress? I'll tell you: Brave New World.

Huxley's story remains my favorite dystopia in it's presentation. Orwell's 1984 is a good source of paranoia fuel, Gibson's Neuromancer has a solid mix of 1980's trends extended into the future and fairly original technological development, and even Blindsight presents a post scarcity society where humans are becoming redundant in unprecedented numbers with the expected concerns; but A Brave New World sold me on its setting because it took the time to explain itself near the end. The elites decided that sustainability was preferable to extinction even if most of the value had to be drained from life in the process and they went about creating a stable society with just that at it's core. The logic is twisted but not hard to follow and it even includes an out for anybody that didn't like the society.

The machine stops has none of that. Most of the people go from cradle to grave in the embrace of their all powerful machine and this is apparently by design. Any dissenters from this system were apparently ineffectual in carving out a niche for themselves and the machine appears to fail in a fairly short span of time implying it's deeply interconnected and not very redundant. I could very well have missed some crucial plot point but the machine seems like more of a plot device than anything that the modern world would produce. I'm technically gifted or at least capable. I've fixed clothes dryers, weed eaters, lawn mowers, and more. My family includes network administrators and a nuclear plant technician. In short I have the knack, at least a bit. This story grates against that part of me. It feels like a weird, poorly thought out straw man of technology and society where the Machine just sort replaces these complex and dynamic supply and demand chains that undergird the industrialized world both then and now. I'd be okay with that if it didn't feel like a huge Diabolus ex Machina.


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