Edward Morgan Forster, or E.M. Forster, is considered one of the finest British writers of the 20th Century. He is most famous for having written the novels Where Angels Fear to Tread, A Room with A View, Howard's End, A Passage to India and Maurice, all of which have been adapted into well-known movies and TV miniseries starring Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham-Carter, Daniel Day-Lewis, Hugh Grant and Hayley Atwell. He also wrote one Science Fiction story, The Machine Stops, which has suddenly turned out to be way ahead of its time.
One of the First Dystopian Science Fiction Stories
The novella, written back in 1909, takes place in a far future where an entire society lives in isolation and lockdown. People all live underground in their own womb-like pod, pampered and kept safe by The Machine, in which they place all their faith. The heroine, a woman in her 50s named Vashti, lives a comfortable existence, almost smug in her certainty that everything is fine. Nobody goes out. Everyone communicates with each other through telecommunications, they teach classes, go on tele-dates, send letters electronically to each other. Somehow, E.M. Forster foresaw Skype, Zoom and email – hell, the entire internet – here. And the story also takes on a completely unexpected relevance in our current state where the world is largely in quarantine and lockdown from the coronavirus.
Vashti is perturbed when her son Kuno insists on physically coming over to visit her. Face-to-face contact is almost taboo in this underground society. Kuno is a rebel who believes The Machine has been lying to everyone about the true nature of the outside world on the surface. He tells his mother he intends to out and explore the surface, to her horror. To rebel against The Machine is against the law and the punishment is homelessness, exile from the comfortable underground world and presumably death on the surface. Kuno is disenchanted with the sterile, homogenous mechanized world they all live in.
He tells Vashti that the surface world is safe to live in and there are societies of people thriving there. He tells his mother that the authorities eventually captured him and brought him back underground under threat of 'homelessness'. Vashti dismisses her son's rebelliousness and goes back to her comfortable life as life support equipment used to visit the surface world is banned to prevent more people from going. Vashti and the citizens see nothing wrong with it, since why would anyone want to go up there? Worship for The Machine reaches religious proportions but there are hints that a rebel movement is brewing.
Eventually, the Machine stops functioning. That means every single system that the people depend on to live their lives – to stay alive – stops, possibly as a result of the rebels sabotaging it. The entire global underground society literally dies. Tens of millions die in the darkness, and Kuno finds his mother so they can die in each other's arms. He hopes humanity on the surface doesn't make the same mistake they did with their blind trust in the Machine.
The Relevance of "The Machine Stops"
Forster foresaw a society overly reliant on machines to the detriment of everything else. He inadvertently predicted the social distancing and self-quarantining and fear of infection we're living through now. The global underground society can be read as an early version of Globalisation. The Machine could be read as a metaphor for Government or the Church or even Communism where the citizens place so much faith in it that they're doomed when it completely fails.
Forster often wrote about class divisions in society in his stories, and The Machine Stops is consistent with his preoccupations. It's a wonder that it hasn't been adapted into a movie. There was a TV adaptation in an episode of the British Science Fiction anthology series Out of the Unknown back in 1966. It was adapted into a faithful and quite good BBC Radio 4 play in 2001. It has a cult reputation amongst a Science Fiction writers, bands and filmmakers. George Lucas' THX 1138 referenced its tropes. The Pixar movie WALL-E also referenced it in the portrayal of a fat, pampered, complacent humanity totally dependent on automation on a spaceship.
To read the story now is to feel a shock of recognition you didn't feel when you were assigned the story back in high school as many of us were as kids. The story is in Public Domain now and can be read for free.