This is a more of a novella (12,000 words) than a short story, but E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” made me want to read more short fiction this year, so here we are. The timing of this story is the most interesting thing about it. If it hadn’t originally been published in 1909, it would be just another story about the hazards of social media and virtual reality. Instead, it feels eerily prophetic.
In Forster’s world, humans live in tiny underground cells inside the Machine. There’s no need to see anyone in person or leave one’s room when the Machine responds to every need. People exchange ideas, but their ideas are based on third- or fourth-hand experience. Direct experience and direct speech are considered base. Alone, Vashti sits in her little room:
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.
Vashti can contact everyone she knows from this room—several thousand people!—with the touch of a button. Most recognizable is her plate (iPad) that allows her to contact (Facetime) her son. Sometimes stories set far in the future are difficult to read because of their technobabble and new parameters for what’s possible, but there’s little mystery here. Vashti’s devices are recognizable even when carried to an extreme. At times, they’re a little too recognizable… If Vashti needs a moment to herself, she can block all communications and be bombarded with notifications when she comes back online:
Vashti’s next move was to turn off the isolation switch, and all the accumulations of the last three minutes burst upon her. The room was filled with the noise of bells, and speaking-tubes. What was the new food like? Could she recommend it? Has she had any ideas lately? Might one tell her one’s own ideas? Would she make an engagement to visit the public nurseries at an early date?
Though Vashti’s life seems sterile and lonely, she’s comfortable. She trusts the Machine in all things. When her son, Kuno, asks her for a visit she can’t understand why he needs to see her in person instead of through the Machine. To Vashti, there’s no difference, but Kuno wants to have a face-to-face conversation about his desire to see the surface of the earth:
“…The Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That is why I want you to come. Pay me a visit, so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my mind.”
Vashti’s journey to her son is one of the more affecting parts of the story. She has been holed up in her room for so long that small things shock and upset her. There’s a whole new etiquette for personal interactions and Forster’s brave new world morphs into something bizarre when it becomes clear how much of the human experience Vashti’s society has given over to the Machine. Her fear of “direct experience” is mentioned a couple of times and makes the point well. I can write-off some mechanics of Forster’s future world as impossible or ludicrous, but there’s no denying that the Internet’s anonymity makes some experiences easier. It’s not hard to imagine people retreating farther and farther into an online world, even if no one ever builds a giant underground honeycomb.
There are so many clever details as the story winds to its conclusion that I spent most of the time marveling that it was written in 1909. “The Machine Stops” isn’t subtle in the least, but its incredible relevance more than 100 years after its writing boosts it over some other staples of dystopian lit—Brave New World, for example, which seemed to be aging badly the last time I picked it up.
If you’d like to read the full story, here’s a link to the first chapter (out of three). It’s a quick read, but it’ll require you to spend more time on the Internet. As long as you talk to one person irl afterwards or step outside, everything should be alright.
Next up: “The Dinosaurs on Other Planets” by Danielle McLaughlin