Thursday, July 3, 2008

E M Forster's "The Machine Stops" (novelette, machine dystopia, free): When the machine meant to serve became an overlord

Quote from short story titled The Machine Stops by E M ForsterApparently a very famous story. Didn't work for me, but this 1909 story contains so many familiar sf tropes & electronic stuff we consider normal that I would call it an important story for someone interested in the history of science fiction.

Story summary.

In the post-scarcity earth "thousands of years" into future, The Machine runs the world. Humans get everything they want without lifting a finger - at the price of their humanity. But most of them don't realize the price.

People don't live on the surface; in fact, they are very afraid of open spaces & of contact with other people. They live in underground hexagonal rooms built by the machine.

When you are old enough to get out of machine-run nursery, you are assigned a room somewhere in the world. This room is actually an extremely sophisticated machine - operated by a lot of buttons. It can transform into a bedroom, bathroom, or any kind of interior pace you want at the touch of a button. It delivers you food & healthcare via the network of plumbing. It lets you interact with other people via an immersive virtual reality environment.

Most people never leave their room after entering it. But there is a way if you want - a door of your room that opens to a corridor that takes you to surface. You can travel cross country via airships (for free, of course), though it's an ordeal for pretty much everyone & avoided except in extreme emergency.
Note: Fast-moving airships in the story are very slow relative modern aircraft. I cannot locate the reference, but there is an instance of a journey across Bay of Bengal & Indian mainland that takes awfully long.

Machine pairs a man & a woman for childbirth based on its own logic; & denies children to undesirables! Current location of the two doesn't matter; one travels to the other for sex. After conception, they part. Moment a child is born (or is it a little after?), it's handed over to machine-run nursery; mother will normally never see her child again (nor wants to).

This is the story of a young man Kuno who has got an itch to get out of his room. He will carefully begin exploration of the labyrinth underground, & eventually manages to get out to surface (there's a myth that anyone who gets to surface will be killed by normal earth air!) He will be forcibly taken back inside by robots.

We will see some interactions with his mother Vashanti (aka Vashti) - initially, over communications networks, then a very brief & uncomfortable face-to-face meeting. He will be moved by the machine to another room near his mothers' after these bad behaviors, pending decision on his punishment.

That's when the machine breaks down. But only Kuno can see the signs initially; others, including his mother, consider the machine too much of a god & him too much of a heretic to take his warnings seriously. In the eventual catastrophe, pretty much everyone will die. But there are a few rebels that do live on surface - so humans aren't yet completely extinct.

See also.

  1. Matthew Battles sees similarities between this story & Pixar's movie WALL-E.
  2. Philip Saville directed a 50 minute TV adaptation of this story.

Collected in.

  1. Ben Bova (Ed)'s "The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two B".

Fact sheet.

First published: Oxford and Cambridge Review, November 1909.
Rating: B
Download full text.
Download audiobook: Multiple-quality MP3 & ogg vorbis formats. I've not heard this audio version.