The novelist's dystopia has some disturbing echoes of today's authoritarian technocracyby Ben Wright / April 30, 2020 / Leave a comment
In his 1909 novella The Machine Stops, EM Forster asked his readers to imagine a subterranean world where people live in isolation and rarely leave their homes. Each person is assigned a lightly furnished apartment, “hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee,” with “buttons and switches everywhere.” From there they are fed, clothed, medicated, entertained, titillated and professionally occupied. Travel outside requires permission from a technocratic elite. But none of this bothers Vashti, a “swaddled lump of flesh… with a face as white as fungus.” She is content to experience every aspect of her life virtually, summoned and dismissed through a system of gadgets and gizmos, linked to a master “Machine.” However, her son Kuno finds it all very enfeebling. “You talk as if a god had made the Machine,” he scoffs. “Men made it, do not forget that.”
Kuno wants to meet people in person and visit the Earth’s surface. These desires trouble Vashti because tactility is shunned and “the clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned.” Instead, people interact from their rooms using “glowing plates.” As for going outside, everything you need can be delivered through a swift, “pneumatic post.” None of this works for Kuno. He is determined to venture outside, even without a permit or a respirator. “You mustn’t say anything against the machine,” Vashti chides. Indeed, there are steep penalties for having ideas and desires that are “contrary to the spirit of the age.”
One can easily draw comparisons between our current predicament and the dystopia conjured by Forster. Indeed, the echo of Amazon, Uber, Netflix and the all-conquering Zoom is uncanny. But more than technology, Forster is probing the logical ramifications of a society obsessed with keeping people safe. In doing so, he gives us a literary lens through which we can wrestle with the logic of our own locked-down world. In a debate rightly dominated by epidemiology, The Machine Stops is nevertheless essential reading.
That’s because political as well as medical reality has greatly shifted over the last two months. In America, liberals now talk about protecting life regardless of its quality, while conservatives wave signs saying “My body, my choice.” Plans for winding down social distancing point to a future…