Thinking Aloud: “The Machine Stops”

May 4, 2014 by Darius 

I recently reread “The Machine Stops,” a science fiction short story written by E.M. Forester in 1909.

In “The Machine Stops,” the entire population of humanity lives underground within the confines of The Machine, a massive network designed to eliminate the need for human movement and interaction entirely.  Food is delivered to each individual room (resembling cells in a beehive), while communication is by telephone and something similar to a fuzzy Skype.  The outside atmosphere is poisoned.

On one level, “The Machine Stops” is an interesting read because of E.M. Forester’s visions about the future.  The short story (or novella) was published 95 years ago.  Yet Forester imagines, among other things, large-scale air travel and dependence on communication and entertainment delivered remotely via an interface with a machine.  It’s pretty amazing and quite entertaining.

On another level, and something I didn’t appreciate the first time I read it, “The Machine Stops” is a powerful allegory warning against the dangers of trading freedom for convenience.  By the time of the plot of “The Machine Stops,” everything is controlled by a shadowy “Committee.”  Any in-person interaction is highly discouraged, any unauthorized exploration of the Earth’s surface is forbidden on pain of death, and even strong-looking babies are euthanized because there is no place for physical activity in the sedentary society of the Machine.  Over the course of the events of “The Machine Stops,” life becomes even more repressive.  But people accept it because of the convenience of having all their needs attended to by the Machine.

Whether as a cautionary tale or just for entertainment, “The Machine Stops” is worth reading (or rereading).

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