Transwarp Tuesday! The Machine Stops by EM Forster

“Man is the measure…”

Have I ever mentioned how much I dislike Facebook? And seeing people walking along reading badly written, inane texts while there’s a rainbow in the sky above them? And the whole concept of having 5000 “friends” most of whom can’t even be bothered to “like” each other? Asking Google about everything instead of asking a person? Pressing option 1 only to be given a further five options? Listening to a robotic voice telling me to turn right instead of getting serendipitously lost? Having opinions fed to me 140 characters at a time? Sometimes I dream of it all just stopping…

Transwarp Tuesday! 2

The Machine Stops
by EM Forster

EM Forster
EM Forster

At some time in EM Forster’s distant future, but not seeming quite so distant now, man has created a Machine to fulfil all his wants, and has now handed over control of life to the Machine. People sit in their individual rooms, never physically meeting other humans. All their needs are catered for at the touch of a button, and they communicate constantly with their thousands of friends through the Machine in short bursts, increasingly irritated by the interruptions of people contacting them, but still responding to those interruptions.

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 its 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.

They never leave their rooms to find inspiration, so increasingly “ideas” are in short supply. Much of their time is spent asking their friends if they’ve had any new ideas today, but the answer is usually no. For entertainment, they prepare lectures to give to their friends – via the Machine, of course, not in person. And the lectures are short, since everyone is so busy dealing with incoming messages from friends that they can’t concentrate for long. Their friends know only how they look on a blurry viewscreen and how they sound through speakers, their voices competing with the constant hum of the Machine.

Sounds horrifyingly familiar, huh?

Hawkwind have released a new concept album based on the story
Hawkwind have released an album based on the story

Few travelled in these days, for, thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over. Rapid intercourse, from which the previous civilisation had hoped so much, had ended by defeating itself. What was the good of going to Peking when it was just like Shrewsbury? Why return to Shrewsbury when it would all be like Peking? Men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul.

But one day, Vashti’s son contacts her with an unusual request. He wants her to leave her room and travel by airship around the world to his room, to speak to him face to face. She finds the request distasteful, almost obscene, but he is her son. So eventually she makes the journey, ensuring as far as she can that her blinds on the airship are always drawn so that she is never subjected to the hideous sunshine, so much brighter than the ambient lighting provided by the Machine; and doesn’t see the empty, meaningless landscape with its mountains and oceans, or the disorientating stars.

“Man is the measure. That was my first lesson. Man’s feet are the measure for distance, his hands are the measure for ownership, his body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong.”

When she arrives at Kuno’s room, he tells her that he has been outside and what he found there. He tries to convince her that the Machine is no longer the servant of the people and has become instead their master. And he prophesies that one day the Machine may stop…

By these days it was a demerit to be muscular. Each infant was examined at birth, and all who promised undue strength were destroyed. Humanitarians may protest, but it would have been no true kindness to let an athlete live; he would never have been happy in that state of life to which the Machine had called him; he would have yearned for trees to climb, rivers to bathe in, meadows and hills against which he might measure his body. Man must be adapted to his surroundings, must he not? In the dawn of the world our weakly must be exposed on Mount Taygetus, in its twilight our strong will suffer euthanasia, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress eternally.

the machine stops art 2

* * * * *

What a fantastic story! The joy of it is all in the telling. The writing is wonderful, not to mention the imagination that, in 1909, envisaged a world that takes its trajectory straight through today and on to an all too believable future. A warning from the past to us in the present of where we may easily end up if we continue on the road we’re travelling. Full of some disturbing images, a little bit of horror and a tiny bit of hope, this is a masterpiece of short story writing. Sign out of Facebook, stop watching cat videos on youtube, turn off your computer – yes, even switch off your smartphone for an hour… if you still can… and read a story that will make you just a little reluctant to switch them all back on. Then go out and look at the stars…

* * * * *

the machine stops

Here’s a link, but it’s novelette length, about 12,000 words, so you may prefer to get one of the many versions available for e-readers for a £/$ or two. (And yes, I’m aware of the irony… 😉 )

Little Green Men rating: :mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen:

71 thoughts on “Transwarp Tuesday! The Machine Stops by EM Forster

  1. I know this one and it is terrifying how close we feel to this future! There are already people whose entire social circle exists only online. Of course I am in favour of the internet – I wouldn’t get to enjoy your fabulous 1 star reviews with out it! – but it does make one wonder where it will all end.

    • I must admit I spend way too much time online and am pretty anti-social in real life. But (*dons granny-spectacles*) I wasn’t like that when I was young! It’s when I see young people thinking that friendship consists of “liking” each other’s posts on FB – I despair, I tell you, despair!! What will they be like when they’re my age (21!)??

      • At least Pokemon Go got them out and about… straight into the paths of oncoming cars, ditches and whatnot! I don’t know, everything in moderation, I suppose. But it is a worry – some of them might not even make it to the ripe old age of 21 if they’re not careful 😉

  2. Wow! This is a totally different take on A Room with a View! Hee hee. Seriously, I didn’t know Forster wrote science fiction. I was more familiar with novels like A Room with a View and Howard’s End.

    Ha ha! I know what you mean about Facebook. 🙂 Whenever someone posts about a departed relative, I never know what to do. Do I press “Like” for the post? Seems cruel to “Like” a death notice.

    • I didn’t know he did, either, and I can’t remember how I stumbled across this one – it’s been hanging around my Kindle for ages. But it really is great – not just the story, but the writing.

      I totally refuse to become a Facebooker – I have a real thing about it. I hate following people and reading updates that they post publicly (I know – I do it on blogs, but it feels different somehow). It feels like stalking! I reckon if people want me to know something they can e-mail me, phone me, or tell me in person. I think I’m old… 😉

  3. What a prophetic-sounding story, FictionFan!! Shows you clearly that technology can be a good servant, but a very bad master. And this sounds like an interesting plot, too (i.e. not banging on with a agenda, although it does make a statement). Add to that the talented writing style, and I’m not surprised you liked this so well.

    • Absolutely! It’s amazing how accurate a lot of his predictions have proved to be, and I do often wonder what would happen if the internet went down – I reckon there’d be panic in the streets. Especially from young’uns who don’t actually know how to write except with their thumbs… 😉

  4. I love this story. Asimov wrote a similar one about a girl called Uncumber, and Harry Harrison one about the boy who went outside………. All long before we had the technology.
    I am regarded as a raving eccentric because I sometimes (often!) turn off the house phone, and I only check my e-mails once a day. And don’t get me started about people and their mobiles!

    • This one is so accurate in its predictions given that it’s more than a century old – incredible! I am online too much, I admit, and as you know, quite anti-social in real-life. But I wasn’t like that when I was young! It’s when kids spend all their time gazing at screens of one type or another, communicating with their 5000 mythical friends… it makes me shudder! Pokemon GO – aaarghhh!!!

  5. yes, maybe so ( it remain me of WALL-E by Pixar) but there also are many “courants of résistance” every where; To see stars (big sigh), we have to make them turn off ALL the lights ! In France we even have The day of the night !!! (sorry for my english …)

    • I haven’t seen Wall-E, but it looks like it might be fun. Yes, I hope people are resisting, but even though I’m complaining about it, I’m still online way too much myself! We have the same problem here – it’s hard to find anywhere far enough from a town to really see the night sky. Sad – I do like street-lighting, but I’d love it if we could switch it all off every now and then… (Haha! Believe me, your English is far better than my French!! Thanks for popping in… 🙂 )

  6. How interesting! Fascinating and scary that Forster was able to peer eerily into our digital age. I take my Facebook and Twitter in spells – sometimes I get sick of it and take a few days off, but even that is hard! But honestly, these things DO NOT feel as satisfying as being with a friend face to face, or even talking to them. (I hardly ever talk on the phone with friends anymore!) It’s all weird. And now that I have a five year old, his Dad and I are dealing with screen addiction and limiting screen time already. Things are so different now. I don’t want to be totally gloom and doom about it, because perhaps growing up with these things like my son’s generation will do will make it not a big deal. I mean, people freaked out about every technological advance since the dawn of time, I guess. But still, I do empathize with your points and wonder what the future will be like.

    • Incredible that he was able to so accurately predict things way back before computers and so on were even invented! I am on Twitter but I’m a bad Twitterer – I hardly ever read other people’s tweets, and only really tweet my own blog posts (and occasionally yell at a politician, if I’m honest!) But I totally refuse to get into Facebook – I’m online enough already without that. Yes, I used to love lengthy phone conversations – I still do that with my siblings who’re all about as keen on tech stuff as me, but I hate communicating by text. I’m one of those ever-rarer people who doesn’t own a smartphone. At least e-mails are more like old-fashioned letters – room to use more than 140 characters! It must be hard being a parent these days – on the one hand you don’t want your child not to have access to all the things his/her friends have, but on the other hand it’s worrying how much time they want to spend in front of screens. But as you say, each generation has thought the next one was heading for disaster – hopefully they’ll learn to use the internet without being addicted to it in time…

      • We only got our smart phones two years ago, long after all of our friends had them. We were the last holdouts in our group! 🙂 They are terribly handy for navigating and also I love being able to listen to podcasts on them. But it’s so easy for them to just suck away your time!

        • That’s mainly why I won’t get one – I know me too well. I’d be addicted to it within days. I already can’t go anywhere (not even for a bath!) without taking my Kindle Fire tablet… 😉

  7. I haven’t read this one, but it does sound eerily prophetic for its time. I can attest to the fact that I don’t do Facebook. Not personally, not professionally. I simply refuse. I know the *experts* claim everyone has to be on it, but “everyone” doesn’t include me. There are only so many hours in every day, and trying to determine truth from lies doesn’t sound like my cup of tea. *coughs, gently* Now I’ll hop off my soapbox!

    • It’s really amazing how he imagined so closely all the things we’re now using. Yep, no arguments from me re Facebook! I can sorta see the professional use of it, but it saddens me that people use it as a way to communicate with “friends” without going to the effort of actually communicating with them at all. Everybody talking, nobody listening…

      • Domer told me a long time ago he wouldn’t be on Facebook either if his friends would all agree to get off it (and it was his recommendation for me NOT to bother setting up an account there). I truly love blogging much more anyway!

        • Yes, that’s the thing – young people really have to be on it because all their peers are. Me too – I know on blogging we also have “followers” and “likers” but somehow it seems to have a smaller, more personal feel than FB.

    • Oh, that looks interesting – was it good? Ha! Indeed not – at first I quite liked that idea of the room with the reading desk and all wants supplied at the touch of a button. But it all went horribly wrong quite quickly… 😉

  8. I’m completely with you on all the Facebook and ‘like’ and unreal friends debate, so I think I may really like this story by Forster (and no, I wasn’t aware he’d written anything like that). I like Twitter mainly for its links to articles or blog posts which are more interesting than just 140 characters (and the ability to react instantly to it). And blogging of course is different, because it’s more in-depth, but all of those announcements and trumpets on FB drive me nuts!

    • I go through phases with Twitter, but on the whole I find all these different platforms just lead to information overload. I find it hard enough keeping up with the whole blogging thing! But FB is the worst – it’s like reading a perpetual Christmas round-robin letter – and I can’t even bear them at Christmas…

      I think you would enjoy this story though – it’s so well told.

  9. I’ve never actually heard of this one. It sounds pretty good though, weird how he managed to predict about technology and everything. Although luckily I think in our world there are still many people who can appreciate technology-free moments! 🙂

    • Nor me – I must have just come across it somewhere and stuck it on the Kindle, and then forgot about it. I’m glad I came across it again though – it’s incredible how well he imagined everything. And so well-written! Haha! Your nom-de-plume suggests you might be one of those people! 😉

      Thanks for popping in. 🙂

      • Haha, it’s true, I am pleased to say that me and my family seem to spend the right amounts of time on technology and off it. Although I do often glare a bit at my parents when they use their phones and I’m talking, even though I’m the teenager! As for my name, I feel I am someone that would have been happy living in a different century, I just love history so much haha

        • Ha! Maybe it’s your parents’ generation I should be worrying about then! 😉 Yes, I often feel I’d like to live in a past century too, so long as they’d let me take my Kindle back in the time-machine…

  10. How prophetic, I think I’ll nod and agree the whole way through this story. As the last person left in Australia who doesn’t Facebook, I’m out of the social loop too. However, I don’t care! Usually I would rather not know what is going on.

  11. I LOVE old sci-fi stories that get it almost right and terror that I feel that someone could have predicted so much. This story definitely sounds like it’s for me. Technology gave me such a panic attack once that my husband stormed around the apartment, unplugging the TV and the router, taking batteries out of our cell phones and sticking them in a drawer. What a weekend it was *sigh* ❤

    Evn though I realize that I'm on a laptop right now, I'm using it outside. I'm watching a squirrel dig in the grass, watching my cat watch the squirrel, and typing without looking at the computer (it's a strange skill).

    • Haha! Sounds like you should switch the technology off more often… 😉

      I’m kinda hypocritical about the whole thing, ‘cos I spend way too much time indoors staring at one screen or another, even more now that I do most of my reading on a Kindle. But it’s the smartphone thing that really gets me – people all wandering along the street gazing at a screen and never interacting with the world around them…

        • Yes, it really is the young people that it bothers me about. I know we all get nostalgic about our own youth, but it seems to me we struck up random conversations and friendships much more easily back then, pre-computers and phones. But maybe I’m wrong – maybe they gain as much from all this technology as they lose…

  12. I’ve downloaded this story. After reading, I may want to recommend it to my daughters who grew up with info tech. I wonder how a story like this seems to young people who can’t remember a time before computers, and everything that followed from them.

    • I hope you enjoy this one – I love the writing as well as the imagination in it. Yes, that would be interesting. I can’t really imagine having always been connected up to computers. I first worked with one way back when I was 16, but home computers didn’t really become very user-friendly till they invented the lap-top. And I’m still holding out against the smartphone…

  13. I had no idea Forster wrote sci-fi, and this sounds terrifying in its accuracy!

    I held out for ages before getting a mobile phone, and now I have a smart phone (which is really useful, particularly at the moment when I’ve had no internet for a week & can still check emails and read great blog posts 😉 ) but I do find phones and the fact that people seem to spend every spare moment gazing at them very annoying.

    I’m not on Facebook. This position is non-negotiable 😉

    I’m definitely going to read this story – in paper format if I can tear myself away from a screen!

    • Nor me – I must have just stumbled across this story somewhere and stuck it on my Kindle for later. Definitely worth reading! Hope you manage to track a paper copy down…

      Yes, I have an old mobile – not smart – which in theory I keep in case of car breakdowns. But since a) it’s never charged up and b) I don’t know where it is and c) I can’t remember the phone number, it all seems a bit pointless! I do use my Kindle Fire tablet though as back up for when my computer breaks down, but it’s only useful outside in places with a wifi connection, and that’s too much hassle for me. *sighs* When I was young, I loved having all the latest tech – I think I need more wrinkle cream… 😉

      No Facebook! Never!!

  14. I just finished the Menace of the Machine collection and this was one of my favorite stories in it. I agree… very well written and quite prophetic.

    I’m torn between loving and hating technology. I’ve owned computers for more than 35 years and have been blogging since 2005, yet I refuse to be on Facebook and only recently broke down and got into Instagram. I do have a Twitter account, but have all but abandoned that after it became such a toxic environment during our last election cycle. I still like to write real snail-mail letters, but would rather text someone than have to call them on the phone or email. Pros and cons all around.

    I’m afraid we’ve really created a menace, but there’s no turning back at this point.

    • I used to always have to have the latest tech, but not any more. I blog, tweet occasionally and use email, but that’s about it. I can’t stand Facebook, and Instagram is even worse! And don’t even get me started about Snapchat! Haha! I suspect that’s a sign of my advancing age! But seriously, I do worry about the way young people especially seem to live their lives through their phones – I think it’s too easy to become isolated. But I wouldn’t give up all my bloggy friends around the world, so I have mixed feelings about it all too…

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