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  • Writer's pictureSona Schmidt-Harris

E.M. Forster’s, "The Machine Stops" More Relevant than Ever

I had the privilege of being an adaptation consultant for the documentary film, There, currently in production. There is loosely adapted from E.M. Forster’s eerily predictive science fiction short novella, The Machine Stops.

First published in the Oxford and Cambridge Review in November of 1909, The Machine Stops was decades ahead of its time. Known more for his ethereal novels including, A Room With a View, Howard’s End, and Maurice, E.M. Forster took a hard and far-reaching look into the future with The Machine Stops.

Kuno, the protagonist, is very unsatisfied with his sanitized life under the earth where nothing on the surface can harm him. His mother, Vashti, is quite satisfied with her predictable life underground and is very disturbed when Kuno expresses dissatisfaction. Their sterile lives are made possible by “The Machine,” actually deified by the inhabitants underground. The manual to The Machine becomes a Bible of sorts to the pod-living people below.

Individuals speak to one another virtually through “round plates” analogous to today’s computers or smartphones. When Kuno speaks to Vashti through the plate he declares, “I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through the telephone, but I do not hear you.”

Forster accurately predicted the separateness established today through machines. He even predicted the use of buttons to obtain that which we need:

“There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.”

Direct interaction with one another in The Machine Stops is nearly eradicated, so much so that, “Vashti was seized by the terrors of direct experience.” This unfortunate phenomenon has already begun in modern society.

Kuno wants Vashti to come and visit him in person, something that is frightening to Vashti. She assents, but even the aircraft in which she travels is designed to shut out most of the atmosphere:

“. . . Dawn, midday, twilight, the zodiacal path, touched neither men’s lives nor their hearts, and science retreated into the ground, to concentrate herself upon problems that she was certain of solving.”

When Vashti arrives to visit Kuno, he states, “I have been threatened with Homelessness, and I could not tell you such a thing through the Machine.”

He longs to visit the surface of the earth, which requires some strength. However, in his “present” there is a problem:

“By these days it was a demerit to be muscular. Each infant was examined at birth, and all who promised undue strength were destroyed.”

As Kuno climbs toward the surface of the earth, he states:

“It was easy at first. The mortar had somehow rotted, and I soon pushed some more tiles in, and clambered after them into the darkness, and the spirits of the dead comforted me. I don’t know what I mean by that. I just say what I felt. I felt, for the first time, that a protest had been lodged against corruption, and that even as the dead were comforting me, so I was comforting the unborn. I felt that humanity existed, and that it existed without clothes. How can I possibly explain this? It was naked, humanity seemed naked, and all these tubes and buttons and machineries neither came into the world with us, nor will they follow us out, nor do they matter supremely while we are here. Had I been strong, I would have torn off every garment I had, and gone out into the outer air unswaddled.”

During their discussion, Vashti states, “The Machine has been most merciful.”

Kuno, reaching for the divine retorts, “I prefer the mercy of God.”

In an analogous, current belief in technology, people watching a lecture through their “plates” declare:

“The Machine . . . feeds us and clothes us and houses us; through it we speak to one another, through it we see one another, in it we have our being.”

Also prophetic, is Forster’s prediction of the cables and wires that connect us:

“The Machine still linked them. Under the seas, beneath the roots of the mountains, ran the wires through which they saw and heard, the enormous eyes and ears that were their heritage, and the hum of many workings clothed their thoughts in one garment of subserviency.”

At some point, Kuno believes that the all-powerful Machine is stopping, and eventually it does.

The lack of Its hum is intolerable to Vashti:

“She had never known silence, and the coming of it nearly killed her— it did kill many of people outright. Ever since her birth she had been surrounded by the steady hum.”

If current humanity, destroyed itself through technology, say nuclear weapons, perhaps the next paragraph would be apropos:

“Man, the flower of all flesh, the noblest of all creatures visible, man who had once made god in his image, and had mirrored his strength on the constellations, beautiful naked man was dying, strangled in the garments that he had woven.”

Finally, when the Machine stops, and Vashti and Kuno are clamoring for the surface of the earth, Kuno, near death, bleeds on Vashti:

“His blood spurted over her hands. ‘Quicker,’ he gasped, ‘I am dying—but we touch, we talk, not through the Machine.’”

In this final statement and act, Kuno bleeds and suffers for the whole of mankind—a sort of Christian blood atonement for humanity’s sins, particularly, for deifying technology and refusing to interact with one another on a direct, humane level.

If this has interested, you read the entirety of THE MACHINE STOPS.

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