The novelist E. M. Forster (1879-1970) wrote books such as A Passage to India, Howard’s End, and A Room With a View that deal with life in Victorian England and its empire, casting a wry look at the mores of the British bourgeoisie, the kind of material that is ideal fodder for Merchant-Ivory films. He is not known as a science fiction writer and so I was surprised to learn that in 1909 he wrote a futuristic short story with the title The Machine Stops that is available online.
Like many such tales, it presents a dystopian vision of what is in store. Although the story was written in 1909, it anticipates many modern elements. It sees humanity as having pretty much destroyed the environment and people now mostly live underground in a smaller version of what we now call ‘smart homes’. These are ‘smart rooms’, where everything is provided for the individual occupant by mechanical devices at the touch of a button, run by a seemingly omnipotent and omniscient entity called The Machine that hums quietly in the background.
People communicate with each through video links and through a form of instant messaging that is like email. This means that they do not need to leave their rooms for anything and real-life human contact has largely disappeared. In the rarest of occasions and with great reluctance, they may be required to get into airships for transcontinental travel but to do so they bypass any direct contact with the surface of the Earth.
Since no one goes outside their rooms, they have no new experiences that could provide the raw material for new ideas. People merely recycle old ideas. From their rooms, they give lectures on these recycled ideas through the video link to unseen audiences and gauge the responses. They even make a virtue of this by despising anything new and venerating those old ideas that have been massaged over and over again, the more the better.
Forster’s story is about one woman Vashti and her son Kuno in this world. He lives underground in another part of the globe far away from her and, much to her disapproval, tells her that he has decided that he wants to go to the surface of the Earth and see what is there, something that is forbidden by the unseen and all-powerful Central Committee that sets the rules and is supposedly in charge of The Machine.
People have only one physical book.
This was the Book of the Machine. In it were instructions against every possible contingency. If she was hot or cold or dyspeptic or at a loss for a word, she went to the book, and it told her which button to press. The Central Committee published it. In accordance with a growing habit, it was richly bound.
Sitting up in the bed, she took it reverently in her hands. She glanced round the glowing room as if some one might be watching her. Then, half ashamed, half joyful, she murmured “O Machine!” and raised the volume to her lips. Thrice she kissed it, thrice inclined her head, thrice she felt the delirium of acquiescence. Her ritual performed, she turned to page 1367, which gave the times of the departure of the air-ships from the island in the southern hemisphere, under whose soil she lived, to the island in the northern hemisphere, whereunder lived her son.
As one might expect, it is the lack of a sense of community and the total dependence of people on The Machine and their idolizing of it that leads to problems.
It is an interesting, if bleak, story.