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.
Those are the first words of The Machine Stops, a haunting, odd–and oddly prescient– short story about the dangers of over-reliance on technology. It is extra noteworthy for a few reasons. The first is that it was written by E.M. Forster. Yes, that one. Passage to India Forster. Room with a View Forster. Who knew he dipped his toe in SF?
The second remarkable thing is that he did this toe dipping in 1909. In 1909, the telephone was a new technology, and radio in its infancy. That he should be able to extrapolate this strangely accurate dystopia at that time points not only to his powers of observation and imagination, but also, perhaps, to the discomfort I suspect many people were experiencing at that time, as the world rushed into modernity. We don’t hear much about that discomfort, because Progress is our modern religion, and those who once held out some concerns about its cost don’t tend to get much stage time in our cultural narratives. This little story is like finding a message of dissent in a dusty old bottle.
Now, to be sure, the dystopic themes he’s working on in The Machine Stops are quite familiar to all of us in 2012. They were familiar way back in the 50s. You should read it anyway because not only is it interesting that he wrote this so early, but also--because it is so early–his vision and his metaphors are quite different from later works. Later authors and filmmakers, no matter how critical or pessimistic, are already part of the Machine. They were born into a fully technological world. Forster was born in the age of coal. He was looking into the jaws of the beast and describing what he saw.
How to read it:
This is a short story, easy enough to read in your browser in one sitting. It’s also in the public domain.
- You can read it on a single webpage, hosted by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. (Those guys have a sense of humor!)
- Or you can download it for free in the file format of your choice here.
- Or you could pay 99 cents to put in on your Kindle.
- In print you’d find it as part of his collected short stories, as it is here.
Also, I discovered that the story was adapted into a fifty-minute TV episode in the 60’s. You can watch it on YouTube, but if you’re planning on reading it, I’d recommend you read it first so you have some hope of being able to envision the setting as Forster was describing it (if that is possible at all). After seeing this video, you’re only going to be able to imagine it occurring in one of those typical 60’s scifi settings. You know what I mean–high contrast black and white, mod costumes, psychedelic sound effects, tilted camera angles…