The Scientific Indian

The Machine Stops

The Machine Stops is a short story by E M Forster, which he wrote as a reaction to one of H G Wells’s optimistic stories. I have read through part of the story and I must confess I find the vocabulary outdated, but that should not surprise anyone, since all science fiction stories run that risk. Here’s an interesting section where Vashti, mother of Kuno, is asked by the forlorn son to visit her. They live on either side of the planet, underground in honeycomb like rooms that are plugged into The Machine. The Machine is the all pervading, life sustaining system, a new god created out of technology that humans have now ensalved themselves to. Hey, I know what that is: that’s Son of Google! Lord on Intertubes! Well, onto the story now.

‘Mother, you must come, if only to explain to me what is the harm of visiting the surface of the earth.’

‘No harm,’ she replied, controlling herself. ‘But no advantage. The surface of the earth is only dust and mud, no advantage. The surface of the earth is only dust and mud, no life remains on it, and you would need a respirator, or the cold of the outer air would kill you. One dies immediately in the outer air.’

‘I know; of course I shall take all precautions.’

‘And besides—-‘

‘Well?’

She considered, and chose her words with care. Her son had a queer temper, and she wished to dissuade him from the expedition.

‘It is contrary to the spirit of the age,’ she asserted.

‘Do you mean by that, contrary to the Machine?’

‘In a sense, but—-‘

His image is the blue plate faded.

‘Kuno!’

He had isolated himself.

For a moment Vashti felt lonely.

Then she generated the light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her. There were buttons and switches everywhere – buttons to call for food for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. 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.

Vashti’s next move was to turn off the isolation switch, and all the accumulations of the last three minutes burst upon her. The room was filled with the noise of bells, and speaking-tubes. What was the new food like? Could she recommend it? Has she had any ideas lately? Might one tell her one’s own ideas? Would she make an engagement to visit the public nurseries at an early date? – say this day month.

To most of these questions she replied with irritation – a growing quality in that accelerated age.

The last line is interesting. At every major technological era, people react strongly to the changes that come about to old ways. Still, the acceleration that Forster mentions is real. Consider how long it took to travel or for a mail arrive a few decades ago. It took days, sometimes months, even years. Human interactions, travel, and trade especially, have accelerated at a pace that is far greater than what we may be able to cope with given our evolutionary legacy (a more pastoral biological legacy with the unknown normally hidden and unresponsive). Still, I cannot help but think that reactions to technological progress is, on many instances, luddite.