A Prophetic Vision of Covid life 2020 –
Book Review of The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster
Vashti has all that she needs in the world, living alone with an armchair and a reading desk. At the press of a button she receives food, music, literature, light, and a perfect atmosphere. She knows hundreds of people but has met few. Without leaving home, she can speak to her son, seeing his distant form on a device in her hands. She attends lectures virtually with others of like mind, and can summon transport if required, though foreign travel is discouraged. In any case, the world has become similar all over. When meeting, which is rare, people don’t shake hands. The sun’s rays are deemed dangerous. Sounds familiar?
But this is not the Earth in 2020 Covid Lockdown, this is from a 1909 novella, The Machine Stops, first published in the Oxford and Cambridge Review by the inestimable E. M. Forster. It was written when tungsten light bulbs were new, and homes heated by coal. The telephone, radio, TV and computers weren’t invented, yet he gives Vashti a ‘cinematophote’ and has her communicating with a ‘plate’ to visualise her callers. Vashti summons her regulation bed when required, but there is no real day or night in her underground home near Sumatra. The authorities have removed society from the clutches of wild, angry nature after failing to control it. Vashti even has medical diagnostic machinery in her ceiling. I was amused at it thrusting a ‘thermometer at her heart.’ Perhaps the more conventional oral or rectal application lacked drama for Forster! She also has ‘hygienic’ clothes and ‘dietetic’ tabloids. Not the same as our tabloids, I fancy.
Not only did Forster imagine air conditioning, automatic home systems, the world wide web, Alexa and Zoom, he also saw a devastated world where all trees had been sacrificed (for paper) and litter predominated. The only permitted available physical book was The Book- a bible proscribing behaviour and action in every eventuality. Under the ever-humming ‘Machine,’ dissent is discouraged, and transgression punished by ‘Homelessness’ – banishment out onto the hostile planet and certain death. In his tale, individuals live underground ‘pod’ existences under the maintenance of The Machine. It decides when they may mate, assigns their children to nurseries for rearing, and grants their wish for euthanasia when it sees fit; the death rate must not exceed the birth rate. The story develops as she decides to visit her son by the only available transport, airship. But no plot spoilers here! The result is one of perhaps mixed hope.
Edward Morgan Foster was born in 1879 – actually registered as Henry, but wrongly christened! Receiving a trust at 8 from his aunt (almost a million pounds in today’s money) he certainly had none of the usual writers’ money worries. A member of the Bloomsbury Group, he also served with the Red Cross in WW1 Egypt, an Indian Maharajah in the 20s, and the BBC in the 30s and 40s. He wrote prolifically, winning many prizes and being nominated an astonishing 16 times for a Nobel Prize.
My previous knowledge of him was limited to the film adaptations of his novels highlighting class differences and hypocrisy (e.g. Room with a View, Howards End and Passage to India). But after reading this clever novella, I shall read more. The Machine Stops is a thought-provoking read when so many are railing against epidemic-incompetent leaders on social media and US citizens are rioting at a president threatening violence against peaceful Black Life Matters protesters. Forster’s powerful story – like much science fiction- shows the insidious power of an uncontested state. We are not yet brainwashed into believing all we are told. We can still lift our face to the sun (albeit sun-screened!) Our state doesn’t, like the Machine, cull muscular infants for fear of dangerous restlessness in solitary pods, but lockdown has given us a flavour of the Machine’s sanctions for ‘Egressing’ without permission; unless you are an advisor of the PM… Overall, Forster offers a salutary lesson in the consequences of standing by and letting the state dictate.
The Machine Stops (25 pages) can be read free at www.ele.uri.edu
E.M. Forster, A life, P.N. Furbank 1978 ISBN 978-0156286510 is a definitive biography