Classic sci-fi: The Machine Stops

Whilst browsing in my local library yesterday, I spotted a slim little volume entitled “The Machine Stops, and Other Stories”, by E.M. Forster. I’d heard of this titular story – it’s regularly held up as a classic piece of dystopian science-fiction, and it’s much-admired by writers and thinkers who are concerned about the negative effects of technological advance. It seemed like something I really needed to read.

It didn’t take me long to read “The Machine Stops”, as it’s only about twelve thousand words long, and I tackled most of it as I had a pleasant soak in the bath. What the author manages to squeeze into those words is, however, truly astonishing. This story was written in 1909, and is spine-chillingly prophetic in its predictions for the future.

It’s set in an undefined future age, where everyone lives underground in vast networks of individual rooms. Each room is identical, and one person lives in each of them. They are provided with everything they need, and rarely, if ever, go out – travel is allowed but generally only done when absolutely necessary, going outside is considered dangerous and foolish, and people very rarely meet face to face. Instead they rely on remote communication systems, and attend “lectures” delivered remotely. Music and films can be piped into their rooms. Food and other material needs are delivered automatically. Everything is controlled by “The Machine”, a huge system of technology that automates pretty much everything, and provides communication systems that allow people to interact from their rooms. Each room has control panels allowing people to make requests for things they need, and a book is issued, full of instructions on how to use the controls. Every need is catered for.

Stop and think about this for a minute – bloody hell, you’re telling me this was written in 1909?!? Back then, we only had silent movies, radio was in its infancy, TV was well into the future, electricity was rarely found in private homes, telephones were an expensive luxury, and most road transport was still powered by horses. Powered flight had only been around for six years. In the light of this rather basic world, this author has single-handedly predicted the coming of the Internet, social media, video conferencing, music and audio streaming, online shopping, artificial intelligence, home and industrial automation, the redundancy of any form of manual work, AND the disintegration of society that this has brought about. There’s loads of subtle throwaways in this that are astonishingly close to modern reality. The main character, Vashti, is happy with what The Machine provides, and never questions anything. Her son, Kuno, is a rebel who wants to go outside and see the stars, and wants to see his mother in person. She can’t understand why what we’d call video calling isn’t good enough, and thinks she can get all she needs in terms of intellectual and spiritual stimulation from The Machine’s “lectures” (aka video conferences), along with piped music (aka Google Play, Spotify etc) and “cinematophotes” (aka Netflix). She even negates her need to meet people in person by stating she has “thousands of friends” (aka Instagram followers).

Let me say this again – THIS STORY WAS WRITTEN IN 1909.

Vashti is persuaded to visit her son, and goes on an airship journey to see him, much to her disgust. It becomes clear that travel is considered vulgar and unpleasant, and contrary to what a person truly needs or wants. It’s mentioned that physical contact with another human being is considered the height of rudeness, even if you’re helping them, and that a respirator is necessary to avoid death if you venture onto the earth’s surface. What?!? COVID lockdowns, anyone? That’s social distancing and mandatory face coverings right there.


As the story goes on, it becomes clear that The Machine dictates pretty much everything that an average person does and thinks, and that effectively their entire cultural life exists “online”, with physical experiences and objects considered completely worthless. Some people begin worshipping The Machine, and consider its book of instructions a sacred text (if the book ever gets dropped, an automated device picks it up again).

Eventually, The Machine’s ability to repair and maintain itself fails, leading to widespread problems. The air becomes polluted, communications break down, and people begin to panic, having lost their ability to repair The Machine themselves. They’ve also completely lost their ability to live without its protections, provisions and restrictions. The story ends on a disastrous note.

One more time – 1909!!!!! If this isn’t a razor-sharp vision of early-to-mid twenty-first century life, I don’t know what is. The author died in 1970 at the ripe old age of ninety-one, so he would have witnessed the dawn of the mass media, but not the digital revolution of thirty years later. I’d kill to know what he’d have made of that.

I was keen to see if the story had ever been adapted for film and TV, and was pleased to see the BBC had included it in a science-fiction anthology series called “Out of the Unknown” in the 1960s. I found it online here. This episode is apparently the only one to survive from the second series, the rest sadly being victims of the BBC’s tape-wiping policies before they realised the value of what they’d made. I was extremely impressed by it – it’s a very faithful adaptation of the story, with a glorious trippy, spaced-out vibe to it typical of the era it was made in. I’d pictured everything as I read the story in a very steampunky style, but the BBC went for a zeitgeisty “space-age” look which works too. I love the music and effects. It’s interesting to see how everyone dresses the same, and even that most people can’t walk properly because it’s not actually necessary any longer.

I was really blown away by both the story and the film – they’re incredibly thought-provoking. It’s terrifyingly close to reality in some ways, especially the way society seemed to be heading as we were all stuck indoors in 2020. Thankfully we seem to have pulled back from the brink on that one, but what of the rest of book’s predictions? They’re uncomfortably close to the world we’ve made for ourselves. There’s a warning in there, and you’d be wise to listen.

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