The Machine Stops

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"The Machine Stops"
Author E. M. Forster
Country England
Language English
Genre(s) Science fiction short story
Published in The Oxford and Cambridge Review
Publisher Archibald Constable
Media type Print (Magazine, Hardback & Paperback)
Publication date November 1909

"The Machine Stops" is a science fiction short story (12,300 words) by E. M. Forster. After initial publication in The Oxford and Cambridge Review (November 1909), the story was republished in Forster's The Eternal Moment and Other Stories in 1928. After being voted one of the best novellas up to 1965, it was included that same year in the populist anthology Modern Short Stories.[1] In 1973 it was also included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two. The story is particularly notable for predicting new technologies such as instant messaging and the Internet.

Plot summary[edit]

The story describes a world in which most of the human population has lost the ability to live on the surface of the Earth. Each individual now lives in isolation below ground in a standard 'cell', with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global Machine. Travel is permitted but unpopular and rarely necessary. Communication is made via a kind of instant messaging/video conferencing machine called the speaking apparatus, with which people conduct their only activity, the sharing of ideas and what passes for knowledge. The two main characters, Vashti and her son Kuno, live on opposite sides of the world. Vashti is content with her life, which, like most inhabitants of the world, she spends producing and endlessly discussing secondhand 'ideas'. Kuno, however, is a sensualist and a rebel. He persuades a reluctant Vashti to endure the journey (and the resultant unwelcome personal interaction) to his cell. There, he tells her of his disenchantment with the sanitised, mechanical world. He confides to her that he has visited the surface of the Earth without permission and that he saw other humans living outside the world of the Machine. However, the Machine recaptured him, and he has been threatened with 'Homelessness', that is, expulsion from the underground environment and presumed death. Vashti, however, dismisses her son's concerns as dangerous madness and returns to her part of the world.

As time passes, and Vashti continues the routine of her daily life, there are two important developments. First, the life support apparatus required to visit the outer world is abolished. Most welcome this development, as they are skeptical and fearful of first-hand experience and of those who desire it. Secondly, a kind of religion is re-established, in which the Machine is the object of worship. People forget that humans created the Machine, and treat it as a mystical entity whose needs supersede their own. Those who do not accept the deity of the Machine are viewed as 'unmechanical' and threatened with Homelessness. The Mending Apparatus – the system charged with repairing defects that appear in the Machine proper – has also failed by this time, but concerns about this are dismissed in the context of the supposed omnipotence of the Machine itself.

During this time, Kuno is transferred to a cell near Vashti's. He comes to believe that the Machine is breaking down, and tells her cryptically, "The Machine stops." Vashti continues with her life, but eventually defects begin to appear in the Machine. At first, humans accept the deteriorations as the whim of the Machine, to which they are now wholly subservient. But the situation continues to deteriorate, as the knowledge of how to repair the Machine has been lost. Finally the Machine apocalyptically collapses, bringing 'civilisation' down with it. Kuno comes to Vashti's ruined cell, however, and before they perish they realise that Man and his connection to the natural world are what truly matter, and that it will fall to the surface-dwellers who still exist to rebuild the human race and to prevent the mistake of the Machine from being repeated.

Themes[edit]

In the preface to his Collected Short Stories (1947), Forster wrote that "The Machine Stops is a reaction to one of the earlier heavens of H. G. Wells." Although not all Wells's stories were optimistic about the future, this implies Forster was concerned about human dependence on technology.

Adaptations[edit]

A television adaptation, directed by Philip Saville, was shown in the UK on 6 October 1966 as part of the British science-fiction anthology TV series Out of the Unknown.

Playwright Eric Coble's 2004 stage adaptation was broadcast on 16 November 2007 on WCPN 90.3 FM in Cleveland.[2]

BBC Radio 4 aired Gregory Norminton's adaptation as a radio play.[citation needed]

TMS: The Machine Stops is a graphic novel series adaptation written by Michael Lent with art by Marc Rene, published by Alterna Comics in February, 2014.[3]

Mad Magazine #1 (Oct-Nov, 1952) had Blobs a 7-pg story drawn by Wallace Wood where two inhabitants of 1,000,000 a.d. discuss the history of man and his evolution into "blobs" totally dependent on the Machine. The sudden breakdown of the Machine -and what results- perfectly reflect the 1909 story the Machine stops

Derivative works[edit]

Stephen Baxter's story Glass Earth Inc., which refers explicitly to "The Machine Stops", is included in the book Phase Space.

The song "The Machine Stops" by the band Level 42 not only shares the same title with the story but also has lyrics that echo Kuno's thoughts.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Modern Short Stories, S. H. Burton ed., Longman Heritage of Literature series, Longman Group Ltd, Great Britain, first published 1965, sixth impression 1970
  2. ^ "WCPN Program Highlights". Retrieved 12 November 2007. 
  3. ^ "The Machine Stops (mini-series)". 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]