Collapse of a dystopia of isolation and ubiquitous communication: E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, the 2012 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ diverse four-decade history and make clear why each winner deserves recognition as notable pro-freedom and/or anti-authoritarian sf, the Libertarian Futurist Society has been publishing a series of Appreciations of all past award-winners.

Here is an Appreciation of E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” the 2012 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction:

By Chris Hibbert
E. M. Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops” is very appropriate for the time of the pandemic. Forster wrote about a society of enforced physical isolation where everyone can be in constant communication via the Machine.

For a story written just after the invention of the airplane and the beginnings of general availability of the automobile, it is remarkably prescient about modern technology.

People have any music they want to hear piped into their rooms, they can read anything their interests draw them to, and watch or give talks without leaving their armchairs. Food is delivered at the click of a button. Automation goes as far as turning lights on and off and preparing for bed without any effort required.

In 1909, E. M. Forster had already published Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Room with a View, but he also wrote a variety of short fiction, plays, film scripts and other forms. “The Machine Stops” was a break from the style of his other writings, all serious and realistic.

But “The Machine Stops” made a big impression, and continues to make an impression on readers. This is a cautionary tale about the dangers of government and the possibilities for absolute control growing out of people’s demands. Early in the story we’re told that people’s distaste for contact with nature and each other drove the development of the technology. Eventually the technology is used to control people’s choices.

In response to H. G. Wells’ depiction of Eloi living an easy life at the expense of the Morlocks in The Time Machine, Forster shows a futuristic earth where the Machine takes care of humanity’s every need. In scenes that will be very familiar to people who lived through the isolation of 2020, everyone lives like the people in the 2008 Pixar animated movie WALL-E.

The world is governed by a Central Committee that publishes “The Book of the Machine”, which is both the instruction manual and a codification of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. The Committee has the power to declare some activities to be “unmechanical”, and punish transgressors with homelessness, which means expelling them out into the unbreathable outside air.

In Forster’s far future, air-ships are the primary means of travel (this is only 6 years after the Wright brothers flew), but hardly anyone leaves their rooms. In fact babies that look likely to develop into athletes are destroyed lest they be unhappy without access to trees and rivers and fields to run and play in.

Technology is omni-present, but unspecified. Automated conveniences lift dropped objects into your hands, deliver food to your seat, carry you from door to door should you wish to leave your room, and whisk written messages pneumatically to their destination. Optical plates project images of anyone you might want to talk to, though only with fair fidelity.

Early in the story, Kuno, the son of Vashti, the viewpoint character, accuses his mother of worshipping the machine, but she denies it. Shortly after that, worship of The Machine becomes mandatory. To rebel against the religion is to live in danger of being sentenced to Homelessness (which means death).

There’s no romance in this society, and continuity of the species is ensured by assigning people to specific partners. As soon as babies are born, they are taken from their mothers and raised in communal nurseries. “Each infant was examined at birth, and all who promised undue strength were destroyed. … that the Machine may progress eternally.”

It is illegal to go out on the surface without a permit for a respirator, though originally the permits were easy to get. We even hear about someone who received a permit to go outside to study the sea. But eventually, the Central Committee abolishes the respirators and vehicles (“motors”) that made it possible to visit and explore the surface.

The Machine provides whatever you need, but always in a limited selection that might not be precisely what you wanted. At the beginning of the story, everything seems to be in perfect working order, but gradually over the course of the story, we discover that there are increasing restrictions on acceptable behavior, and a deterioration in the Machine’s abilities. When things break down the Committee of the Mending Apparatus becomes less and less responsive.

The Machine becomes less reliable, and the mending apparatus stops working, and complaints are ignored. It starts with the music that everyone has access to, then the water, then world-wide beds don’t open up when summoned. The air gets worse and the lighting dimmer. The final blow comes when the communications infrastructure stops working and no one can reach out to anyone.

There doesn’t seem to be organized resistance, though there are people living outside the system, ready to live differently once the system collapses. We aren’t shown any causes for the collapse. Libertarians will naturally assume that central planning’s inherent weaknesses are behind it, but Forster gives no hints.

It’s only a dystopia to the extent that you believe its inhabitants can’t get everything they want or that progress is inherently valuable. In fact Forster rubs our noses in the drabness of equality — people can want different things, but they’ll all get the same accommodations, the same food, the same beds. People study different subjects and can give talks on what they’ve learned, but it’s clear that it’s all trivial and regurgitated analyses on a shrinking base of knowledge.

Forster’s story ends in collapse, without any hero working to bring it down. Kuno wants to be free to explore the surface, and chafes under the limitations of the Machine, but the disaster is due only to its inability to continue serving the people.

E.M. Forster (Creative Commons license)

Note: E.M. Forster (1879-1970) was an English fiction writer, essayist and librettist and notable BBC Radio broadcaster. Most famous for his novels A Passage to India, A Room with a View, Howards End, and Maurice (published posthumously because of its explicit homosexual romance), Forster often explored themes of hypocrisy and class differences.

According to his Wikipedia entry, Forster was publicly associated with the British Humanist Association, and his views as a humanist are at the heart of his work, “which often depicts the pursuit of personal connections in spite of the restrictions of contemporary society.”

Apparently in at least some regards a classical liberal, Forster “advocated individual liberty and penal reform and opposed censorship by writing articles, sitting on committees and signing letters,” according to his Wikipedia bio.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: Tom Jackson’s Appreciation of Neal Stephenson’s novel Cryptonomicon, the 2013 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

* Read the introductory essay  about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans, and help nominate, judge and vote for the annual Prometheus Award winners. Libertarian futurists believe upholding and advancing culture is as vital as politics in spreading positive visions of the future, achieving a flourishing society based on cooperation instead of coercion and a better, free-er world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

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