Welcome my son

Welcome to the Machine

What did you dream?

It’s alright we told you what to dream

(Pink Floyd, Welcome to the Machine)

The Machine Stops is a short-story written by British writer E.M. Forster 1909. It recounts the fall of a society living nursed in “the Machine”, a global mechanical system built to answer each and every immediate needs of all individuals, and which has since taken its independence and has pursued this task on its own for ages. In this fixed society, which mirrors the English society of the early 20th century, one young man, Kuno, ponders about life outside and attempts to get out of the Machine.

In 1909, Western progress reaches what could be considered its peak (at least in originality), and a series of firsts shake the intellectual life: first (arguably) public moving picture screening in 1895, first manned flight in 1903, first transatlantic radio broadcasting in 1906, first line-assembly factory, first electricity-powered households, etc. These all have in common that they radically changed our relation to the world and practically inverted our place in Nature: it is no longer sunlight that wakes us, it is our waking that summons the light, at the flick of a switch: “She made the room dark and slept; she awoke and made the room light” (p5).

In this short story, Forster picks up all these innovations and extrapolates on what life could be if all of them, taken as a whole, were to be perfected and generalized beyond control. It is part of the work’s strength to choose not a single identifiable novum, but to build, in such a short time, a whole world while taking into account many different innovations and combining them: the most striking example being the video call, which is nothing more than live radio-transmitted cinema. Thanks to this method and probably a pinch of luck, Forster demonstrates an impressive predictive power, so much so that it has been described as “a jaw-droppingly, gob-smackingly, breath-takingly accurate literary description of lockdown life in 2020”1 (which is the time around which I first read the book).

But Forster’s aim was obviously not the premonitory description of a specific time and situation he would never know (though it is worth to mention that he died in 1970, which means that he got to see the world 61 years after his prediction). Indeed, he makes no mention of a specific time or date. His aim lies, as Le Guin argues, in the description of a certain tendency, of a leaning of his society towards certain hazards that are not as manifest as they should be.

Here is the first sentence of the short-story: “Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee” (p1). My first thought when confronted with a British 19th century dystopian bee-hive goes toward Mandeville’s fable, written in 1723. The society described here by Forster seems hellbent on privacy, on having each their own cell. It is unsure as whether the Machine guarantees private property, but it goes way further: people do not touch each other anymore (‘“How dare you!” exclaimed the passenger. “You forget yourself!” The woman was confused, and apologized for not having let her fall. People never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the Machine’ (p9)), and most importantly they don’t share anything beside immaterial “ideas”, they all have the same unlimited access to the same type of things and therefore don’t feel the need for coveting, selling, lending or giving. Indeed in this world, people are obsessed with “producing ideas”, which seems to me a genius mix of Plato’s “world of Ideas” and Marx’s account of modern means of production. And I would argue that Forster raises equal concerns against both liberal utilitarianism and the marxist socialist utopia, which would lead us back to a Platonic idealism (I would have gladly mentioned Nietzsche’s work here, if I had enough words for a deeper philosophical analysis).

But aside from philosophical anticipation, Forster uses this exacerbated metaphorical space to give a striking account of the 1909 British society, in a different way than the one he uses in A Room with a View (1908) or Howards End (1910). One of the main “antagonists” of the story is the Mending Apparatus, whose incarnation is described as “a long white worm” (perhaps reminding us of Poe’s “Conqueror Worm”). This Apparatus is not controlled by people, but rather by the Machine itself, functioning like a blind antibody protecting the system at any cost. Thus, as a misfit component of the system, Kuno is forbidden from procreating, and threatened with “Homelessness” when he tries to escape the Machine. But this repression is not exemplary of a legal one, and, as the characters notice, “there is no legal objection to it” (p11). It is rather an echo of the underlying moral constraints made mechanical, and voiced by Kuno’s mother: “She was ashamed at having borne such a son, she who had always been so respectable and so full of ideas” (p14). Taken out of context, this line reminds the reader about Forster’s homosexuality, which made him a misfit all his life. But it could really be understood as a representation of every victim of kind of normative oppression exercised against queer, marginal or otherwise different populations and individuals, in short, every victim of what Foucault called “biopower”.

But in the end, this bleak and grim account of British society and its perspectives is contrasted by the last words of the book, which seem weirdly optimistic, so much so that would be justified in detecting a cruel sarcasm in them: “Humanity has learnt its lesson”. Is Forster optimistic regarding the powers of Science-Fiction?