This is a short story initially published in 1909 in the Oxford and Cambridge Review. The story was then republished in Forester’s short story compilation of The Eternal Moment and Other Stories in 1928. It has since then received a few awards including in 1965 one of the best novellas and in 1973 it was included in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two.
The author never tells us what year we are being presented with and that is probably for the best because one of the things about Orwell’s 1984 is that I tend to get distracted when reading it and thinking back to that time. Ok, I know it’s a work of fiction but I can’t help if my brain tends to always attempt to make connections. In The Machine Stops, Forester introduces the reader to a civilization who lives underground after having developed a “machine” which seems to take care of their every need. The Machines takes care of their every need. Food, water, pure air and, in fact, even their spiritual needs. The “Book” which I liken it to a spiritual manual is seen in the same way as the Christians see the Bible.
People don’t have to ever leave their homes, although it is permitted, in order to “see” family or read books. The Machine provides for all their needs. Things have been this way for so long that people don’t actually want to travel and prefer, instead, to remain in their “rooms” and have their lives taken care of.
The story follows two main characters Vashti and her son Kuno. They live on opposite sides of the world from each other. Vashti has grown used to the ways of the machine is content with her life. She enjoys the isolation of her room and the comforts the machine provides without any effort. Forester talks about how muscles become attrophied and muscles are looked down upon. There is no need for a muscular body and, in fact, muscular or bigger babies are euthanized because it’s better for them since if they are stronger they will need to exercise and roam and there is no place in the world of The Machine. The ability to have discussions (exchange ideas) seem to be the past time and that is done through video messaging with the rest of the world. There is no human or barely any human contact. Even procreation is regulated by The Machine.
Kuno, on the other hand has grown curious of the world on the surface of the Earth and has ventured there without the permission of The Machine. While on the surface he was caught by the machine and now faces the possibility of homelessness – being expelled from the underground and perhaps death (I didn’t quite understand if physical death or death from this type of world). Kuno calls Vashti, his mother, to come see him at his own and although not happy about having to travel she goes to visit him and he tells her that he’s gone above and that he saw life in the surface. He recounts how beautiful it was up at the top and that even though he is now facing “homelessness” he rather be there where there is color clarity. However, the Machine brought him back and now he can’t leave because it won’t let him go. Vashti dismisses him and goes back to her own home where she resumes the “idea” development and discussion with her “friends” from around the world.
Things begin to change. First travel outside the “walls” of The Machine become prohibited which Vashti agrees with. “There is no need to go out there.” and then a new religion appears and humans begin to worship The Book – a book of rules for living in the underground. All this is accepted and humans forget that they were the ones who build the machine and begin to worship the machine instead of using it. While this changes are taking place the machine begins to break down and the “Mending Apparatus” is no longer able to repair itself. Humans begin to complain about moldy smells and the food is not so good and the then the beds don’t appear when called and the bath waters are not as they like it. Eventually, the hum of the machine stops and since the knowledge of how to repair the machine has been lost the machine finally collapses taking with it a civilization that willingly became subservient to it.
Kuno finds his mother in her room afraid to leave because there were too many people trying to climb to the surface and unable to do so they were dying outside her door. She feared human contact and therefore hid in her room. Before they both died they realized that the humans on the surface of the earth would have to be responsible for continuing the species and not repeat the mistakes of the past.
This story has been adapted into a television series called Out of the Unknown. The series was first aired in 1965 and lasted four season until the producers made the transition into horror instead of Science Fiction.
Although the language, at times, was distracting I enjoyed reading this short story. The description of the humans not wanting or needing to do things for themselves is something we are experiencing to some extent. We no longer need to travel to see family or keep in touch with friends. All our communications can be done via video or phone. We are constantly connected via technology. Like in the story we can get anything we want delivered right to our front doors. We can receive an education on line. If we are hungry we can order food and have it delivered. Even this book, I was able to just have it magically appear on my iPad and read it the same day. It’s not a far stretch to the imagination to see some of the passages in the story taking place today.
If you enjoy SciFi and want a quick read I think this book is still relevant. I would caution you about the language but otherwise I think it’s a good fast read with an interesting concept.
On to may next book.