How E.M. Forster’s Only Foray Into Sci-Fi Predicted Social Distancing
Gabrielle Bellot on the Prescient Parallels of "The Machine Stops"
In 1909, long before the invention of the World Wide Web or the prospect of a world where we must live socially distant from each other, the English writer E.M. Forster arguably predicted both. Each idea appears—in its own way—in one of Forster’s most curious short stories, “The Machine Stops.” All the more remarkable was the fact that Forster was not a science-fiction writer; “The Machine Stops” would be his only entry in the genre. Still, that Forster dabbled in the genre wasn’t really that surprising, given his range as a writer, from his more realistic novels of social critique, like A Room with a View and Howards End, to his posthumously published narrative of queer desire, Maurice, or his more fantastical stories, like “The Celestial Omnibus.” Forster delighted in moments of fantasy in his fiction, and so, in some ways, “The Machine Stops” was right up his aesthetic alley.
“The Machine Stops” would become famous a century after its publication for supposedly having envisioned technologies like social media—and the dangers thereof—long before they appeared. In particular, it predicted computer interfaces and programs like Skype that would allow us to communicate with people across the globe without leaving our rooms. People live in isolation in chambers, where they can call up music and real-time video-chatting at a click; the Earth’s surface is, authorities declare, uninhabitable, so people are advised to stay in their cozy rooms, which everyone has adapted to as their standard for normality. In these ways, the story seems chillingly prescient, capturing dim-but-definite elements of the world we inhabit today, like an astronomer peering through a faintly clouded lens.
The story has echoes of H.G. Wells, one of the few writers of scientific romances—the term that was most frequently used to describe works, like Jules Verne’s novels, before “science fiction” became the norm in the 20th century—that Forster was known to have read. Indeed, Forster declared in an introduction to his Collected Short Stories that “‘The Machine Stops’ is a reaction to one of the earlier heavens of H.G. Wells.”
The comment is telling. Wells is often popularly thought of as a writer whose stories captured the wonder of technologies that did not as yet exist, associating scientific innovations with societal progress as a whole. To be sure, not all of Wells’ tales featured marvelous machines; “The Country of the Blind” and “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid,” for instance, are more akin to horror literature, exploring a journey to a curious but chilling isolated society in the former and a blood-drinking plant in the latter. And even his fiction that focused more on technological advancements was as often filled with adventure as with danger, as well as alarming pictures of humanity’s future. In his best-known novel, The War of the Worlds, aliens attack Earth and gruesomely devour humans, stopped in their genocidal tracks only by their immune systems’ inability to deal with Earth’s germs; in The Time Machine, an inventor is initially thrilled to step into our planet’s future, only to find unsettling visions of what is to come, including a far-off epoch when humans cease to exist on Earth at all.
If anything, The Time Machine, in particular, is closer to a hellscape than a “heaven,” mixing Dantean horrors with Darwinian predictions about our evolution into seraphic beings and fearsome furry beasts alike. Still, Forster saw Wells as a proponent of progress by way of the world increasingly becoming dominated by machines, and he sought to make clear that “The Machine Stops” would not be promoting the beauties of new technologies. He was afraid that the world was indeed becoming one in which we would rely wholly on machines to do anything, a fear precipitated most of all by the feats of Henri Farman, an aviator who famously made the first-ever complete circuit in an airplane a year before Forster’s story appeared. Forster saw Farman’s daring flights as proof that machines could do anything—and that we would soon live in a world where everything was done and controlled by machines.
Like Wells’ novel, Forster’s story also depicts the future—and it is as frightening as Wells’ trip through time, in part because Forster’s version almost seems believable.
In the coronavirus era, Forster’s story takes on a new significance. “The Machine Stops” imagined a future where we have become so accustomed to such technological luxuries that we lose any desire to leave our homes, shunning the outside world—which, in Forster’s story, is supposedly too “toxic” to sustain human life—in favor of devices that let us experience that world from a distance. The characters live and breathe social distance; some literally recoil at the idea of interacting with others in real life. Stay inside long enough, the tale suggests, and the isolating home you once thought of as a little prison world may come to seem a utopia.
In our reality, of course, distance is both simple and difficult—and, for some people, social distancing is not even an option to begin with. In New York City, where I am, the pandemic has made venturing outside—for those of us who have a choice—unnerving; at the same time, staying inside leaves me stir-crazy, anxious, fingers tapping my desk like a clip of a pianist on repeat.
The anxiety is thick like the breath of a swamp. You feel its heaviness on your back as you step outside; stay in, and its weight is still there, if not somehow worse. You worry about losing the city you decided to make your home, a city that is the epicenter of the outbreak. You worry that Death is all around you, as she always reminds us during the great plagues, and the worries worsen the more you dwell. You begin to drift on a pirogue of your fears into a river of the dead, where the loved ones you are not near to, alarmingly, begin to float alongside you, diaphanous and spectral. You live surrounded by fear of losing your livelihood and the lives of the ones you love all at once, especially the ones a sea away in the Caribbean. You worry about your parents, who were sickly even before the pandemic, especially your father, whose heart has had multiple surgeries in the last year.
Your own heart feels heavy, like sea-surge.
You become more and more depressed. Some days are bright, happy; others find you crying in bed, yet again. Week after week, the news depresses you and you know your mental health is crumbling. You try to focus on the people you love, on optimistic future, but on the bad days it feels harder than ever not to collapse again.
The uncertainty is what makes it heavy, rooted deep in you like mangroves. Unlike Forster’s machine, the worries don’t stop—until you force yourself to calm down and do something else to take your mind off those swamp spirits of the mind.
It’s really hard to cope.
I find myself wanting to escape my apartment in Queens more and more, even as I know I must sacrifice my liberties to protect lives around me—because those lives matter most. But unlike in Forster’s story, I don’t find my technology a substitute for the social world I’ve lost in the era of social distancing; I cherish my solitude as a shy, anxious introvert, but I like balancing that with exploring, going out, having fun.
Still, rereading “The Machine Stops” has given me chills. I know our world is not that of the story; all the same, the parallels have begun to feel disconcerting. Forster’s guess about what the future would hold was both alarmist and absurd, but it somehow also feels too real, a sense sharpened by how significantly the pandemic has increased our reliance on technologies that allow us to work in distant isolation from each other—technologies I at once treasure and feel a bit unsettled by, when I imagine the futures that weigh the heaviest on me.
“The Machine Stops” follows Vashti, a woman who lives blissfully alone in a mechanized room. Her chamber is one of innumerable others in “The Machine,” a global underground network of rooms and tunnels in which all humans supposedly live. Vashti is “a swaddled lump of flesh” in an armchair, “with a face as white as a fungus.” That Forster’s first descriptions of his protagonist are so negative is intentional: Vashti is meant to represent a vision of humanity that can move but chooses not to, and never sees the outside world. She is like the sedate humans in Wall-E, except that she is even more isolated and immobile than they are. “Fungus” is a telling term, suggesting how rotten and toxic Forster believes her embrace of the Machine.
The story begins with a description of Vashti’s domicile. “Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee,” the story begins. “The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch all that she cared for in the world.” Her cell contains buttons and levers that allow Vashti to play music, speak with people through video-chat at a distance, listen to or present “lectures” on subjects, call for a tub to bathe in, or request that her bed appear—a blend of a smartphone and smart home. If one wants complete quiet, one can “isolate,” which, at the nudge of a button, takes someone offline—a virtual isolation, as Vashti is already physically isolated.
That Vashti’s room is compared to a chamber in a beehive sets us up for the hive-mind mentality at the heart of the story, whereby most humans casually accept that they should live alone in their tiny rooms. Disobedient humans are made “Homeless,” which means they are put onto the surface of the Earth and left to die in an environment that most people believe is so cold and deadly as to be uninhabitable. Airships travel each day from country to country, but few people travel because the Machine looks the same everywhere.
Vashti’s name is curiously ironic. The most famous bearer of the name was a Persian queen who appears in the Abrahamic religious tradition, whose refusal to acquiesce to her spouse’s objectifying demands has made her into an occasional feminist icon of her era. In the biblical tale, her husband, King Ahasuerus, has thrown a lavish multi-day banquet; Vashti creates a similar but separate banquet for women in the royal house. On the seventh day of feasting and feting, when the king is “merry with wine,” he requests that Vashti appear before him and the men of his banquet, wearing his crown, “to show…her beauty: for she was fair to look on.” Vashti refuses, and the king and his attendants become furious, arguing that if Vashti is able to defy the king’s wishes, other women might do the same to their husbands, and husbands must never let women defy their wishes. Vashti is thus dethroned by the misogynistic king (who, unsurprisingly, calls for a group of “fair young virgins” in place of Vashti at his banquet). Like the Persian queen, Forster’s protagonist does not like others to see her, and she speaks imperiously; on the other hand, Forster’s Vashti has no desire to defy authority, for she blindly submits to the will of the Machine.
The story begins when Vashti’s son, Kuno, who lives across the globe in his own chamber, tells her he’d like to meet her face-to-face, rather than talking over the Machine’s version of what we would think of as Skype today. Unlike his mother, Kuno despises the Machine. He desires a freedom of movement and interaction that alarms her. To Kuno, the Machine—all of the technology that allows us to communicate with others from a distance, never requiring that we leave our rooms—is little different from a jail cell, imprisoning us in an isolation that the alluring beauty of bright, fancy screens tries to hide.
Vashti scoffs at Kuno’s idea as an absurd, fantastical notion. “‘Oh, hush!’” she rebuffs him, adding that he “‘mustn’t say anything against the Machine.’” The Machine represents isolation; to wish to speak to someone in person, or to desire exploring the surface of the Earth, are archaic notions that run, as Vashti puts it, “contrary to the spirit of the age.’” Kuno, however, decides to try to explore the surface of the Earth on his own by breaking out of the Machine through a vent; he discovers, to his surprise, that there are still some humans living on the surface of the Earth and that the idea that the surface is unlivable is false.
Soon after Kuno’s discovery, the central committee orders that the Machine not be questioned and that humans must join the religion of “undenominational Mechanism” or face “Homelessness.” Over time, however, the Machine begins to break down, until it shuts down completely—“the machine stops,” as Kuno declares. At the end, the Machine totally fails, and people crowd the tunnels outside their rooms, screaming, lost without the mechanical aid they’ve been raised to rely on. At the end, making things worse, an airship crashes into Vashti’s branch of the Machine and seemingly kills the people in there, who are already suffocating and shrieking for help.
In the final paragraph, “the whole city was broken like a honeycomb,” an evocative image harkening back to the apian imagery from the start of the essay. The hive has been broken; the bees and their mechanical queen have perished, unable to live without one another. The bits of humanity that survive, Forster declares, will have to rebuild anew, putting their faith in something better than the Machine. Whether or not they can is another story.
Forster was no futurist. His machines are not quite the same as computer interfaces or social media. And his story didn’t aim to merely predict technologies of the future; instead, it was meant to serve as a warning about the dangers of such technologies when pushed to their extremes. What Forster foresaw was not so much the tech of today as what might happen if we become addicted to it—a situation exacerbated, of course, by orders to keep social distance in times of crisis. Forster imagined the trajectory that an ever-more-industrialized, machine-dominated world could take, and “The Machine Stops,” in his mind, was the dire end result. It was a parable of—and, more crucially, for—the future.
Everything about the coronavirus pandemic is difficult. Distance is difficult to maintain if you, like me, crave taking walks, crave exploring the weird activities and aspects of a city, crave the energy NYC used to have on its streets. I’m an introvert who needs her time alone to recharge, but I also like to do lots of weird, wonderful, wacky things in the city I live in—and being forced to stay inside and see the institutions I’ve cherished contemplate permanently shuttering is difficult. It is difficult to accept the sheer incompetence of the Trump administration in being able to face the pandemic. It is difficult to imagine the horrors that abuse victims must face when told they must live long-term with their abusers, or when queer students must stay indefinitely at homes that do not accept their queerness because they cannot return to school campuses, or when parents must balance trying to keep working with looking after their children in an increasingly stressful, unending lockdown.
It is difficult to contemplate how little of a safety net this country has for emergencies like this and how little so many conservative politicians appear to care about their constituents’ health, prioritizing the reopening of economies long before it is actually safe to do so—and our economies must reopen, without question, but reopening too quickly will lead to overrun hospitals and, in turn, cemeteries filled to the brim with the newly dead.
It is difficult, even for those of us whose jobs can be done remotely, to feel entirely secure, worrying, always, that the money will dry up if our soul does not first, pacing frantically through our tiny apartments, wondering how long we can do this without lashing out at others or ourselves, wondering how long we can take care of our loved ones—now always around us—before their presence begins to feel too heavy for us to bear.
The machines keep going, allowing those of us who are luckiest to have tech in the first place to keep their livelihoods without venturing out too far into the unsafe—but distance is as much a luxury and a life-saver as it can be something that lethally weighs on us, and I just want to be able to bear that weight a bit longer. I want to keep trying to believe in my loved ones surviving, because that is the only thing that makes the weight a bit more bearable.