First question: Is this a short novel or a long story? I was thinking about it while I was reading.
Some books do not need many pages to cause an impact on the reader, and this one (story or novel) is an example of that.
The Machine Stops takes place in a world very different (and at the same time very similar) to our own.
Human beings had lost their ability to live on the surface of the Earth, so they exist in separate underground rooms. All their needs are satisfied by the powerful Machine, a global piece of technology which attends to the wishes of the inhabitant of each room.
The only way to get in touch with other humans is through the Machine system, for face-to-face communication has gone out of fashion. Most of the time is spent in the sharing of "ideas" among people. By "idea" they refer to bits of random information about different topics repeated from person to person, without much depth. The modern equivalent of knowledge.
The protagonist, Vashti, lives a happy life in this peculiar universe. She spends her time talking to friends and giving lessons about music through the Machine.
At the beginning of the story, her routine gets interrupted by a call from her son, Kuno. He lives in another part of the world, far away from her.
Vashti finds out that Kuno has been threatened with homelessness, for he has found a way to get to the surface illegally. And on the surface he has found a contradiction to everything that has been taught to him: He has found life.
They have learned to venerate the Machine as something omnipotent, but when the system starts to fail, the characters will have to face that maybe, the answers to their existence lie elsewhere.
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 machinery neither came into the world with us, nor will they follow us out, nor do they matter supremely while we are here."
— E.M. Forster
Why Should You Be Reading It?
When we first start reading, we cannot ignore the similarities between people's living conditions in the story and our own. This year will not soon be forgotten, and the endless months of lockdown are still fresh in my mind. I suppose everybody feels the same way.
The thing that I find more captivating when it comes to science fiction works such as this one, is the fact that they were written and published long before technology became an everyday reality for humans.
Books like 1984 or Brave New World are also a clear example of this. They gave the technology a central role in their plots, always suggesting that such an immense power can be used against their human creators. But each of them emphasizes this in one or a few technological devices. And here we are, decades later, wondering if the authors of those books were not dangerously right.
The Machine has proved to be a faithful parallel to modern technology during these last few months.
To give an example, last January I was not familiar with video communication programs, such as Zoom. How could Forster imagine something like that in 1909?
Many fragments of the novel show Vashti being part of lectures on different subjects, as a teacher or as part of an audience through the Machine. Isn't it the way we have been working and studying in 2020? Isn't it the way we have been communicating with our friends and family?
We have realized how much can be done without leaving our homes, and it has given us a new perspective.
The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world."
— E.M. Forster
The other interesting point is that in the story, long-distance communication is not an option, but a rule. The custom of touching one another has become obsolete because it is no longer necessary. Even more, it is portrayed as something rude and barbaric.
The protagonist herself experiences horror when it comes to human touch, and human contact in general, unless she can use the Machine as an intermediate.
Humans are unable to breathe the air from the surface of the earth, for unknown reasons. To visit the surface they need a respirator, and permission granted by the committee of the Machine.
The ones that are not content with the state of things, are threatened with homelessness, which means exile to the surface, and therefore, death.
Kuno is represented as a rebel, the only voice that questions the place the Machine has come to occupy in the world and criticises its replacement of the real religion.
This human dependence causes the destruction of the Machine, and so, its own destruction.
We created the Machine to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space, and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrow down love to a carnal act, it has paralyzed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it."
— E.M. Forster
Amid the chaos, Kuno says a phrase that sums up the conclusion the book wants to leave us: Humanity has learned its lesson.
Now I wonder, after all the events of 2020: Have we learned our lesson?
When it comes to health, we clearly have not.
I think of this when I walk in the street and see that people are not wearing masks any longer and not taking the simplest precautions while being around the elderly or the ones whose health is more vulnerable. Or when I see teenagers having parties and meeting their friends with no social distancing, completely ignoring the risks.
It makes me sad and angry to think that most people still do not take the virus seriously.
But in the matters of human interactions, I think 2020 has allowed each one of us to realize to what extent we need contact with other people, how much we need one another.
It has made us appreciate how good it feels to hug, kiss, shake hands, to get together, and to share experiences face-to-face and how badly we depend on public spaces to feel close to other people.
Though we have been making enormous use of technology, we know for sure that those things cannot be replaced by a Machine of any kind.
We have learned that if nothing else.
The experiences of the past months call us to reflect upon the way we live, and the impact we want to make in the world as a society. I recommend this book as an interesting and powerful starting point.
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