Also by this author: A Room With a View
Published by Dodo Press on 1909
Genres/Lists: Classics, Fiction, Political
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Imagine living in a world where humans interact by computer screen and rely on technology to bring them anything they want. This is the world that E.M. Forster imagined back in the early 1900’s in The Machine Stops and I wonder if he had any idea how portentous his story would turn out to be. In Forster’s world, humans had become so reliant on technology and leadership that they ceased thinking for themselves and had no need for physical human contact. Humanity had, quite literally, driven itself underground and given itself over to the whims of The Machine. Collectively, it was easier to do as told than to protest, and humans swallowed the stories told to them by The Machine without question in order to avoid any discomfort. But amidst the complacent darkness, there was one man sought the light and The Machine Stops is his story.
This book is entirely too relevant to today’s world. It’s not hard to draw parallels from The Machine to our political system. We also live in a society that oftentimes values individual comforts over the collective good. Plus, we do, actually, idolize and interact by computer screen and can have goods delivered to us with the touch of a button. So while we may not live underground and shy away from sunlight, the following quotes pulled from The Machine Stops demonstrate exactly how prescient Forster may have been.
“Man must be adapted to its surroundings, must he not?”
In The Machine Stops, everyone lives underground and adapts to their surroundings. It was written before we knew about the environmental impacts of the agricultural industry or that the ice caps were melting, but even Forster knew that humans had a capacity to devastate nature for their own comfort. The debate over whether we should adapt to our surroundings or adapt our surroundings to us still plays out today and will likely become a bigger and bigger question as the decades go by.The Machine Stops may have been written in 1909 but its lessons are still relevant today. #classics Click To Tweet
“Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element –direct observation.”
This may be the scariest and most predictive quote in the entire book. Even in 1909, Forster was discussing the concept of altering the ways we teach history in order to paint a different picture. Humans have committed terrible atrocities against each other during our time on this Earth, and we like to think that we learn from our lessons and move on. But this reconstruction of history is happening every day, from those who deny the Holocaust to those who convince themselves we don’t have a race problem. Although the book doesn’t go into the effects that rewriting history can have on a society, it’s not hard to imagine. Would we have the violent clashes we have today if we didn’t tell ourselves everything was okay after slavery was abolished? What if society had decided to continue working towards a more equal society rather than pretending everything was okay and moving on? I don’t know the answers to these questions but, after reading The Machine Stops, I do have them. (If you’re interested, the quote goes on to say, “seraphically free from taint of personality, which will see the French Revolution not as it happened, nor as they would like it to have happened, but as it would have happened, had it taken place in the Machine.”
“…all were bitterly complained of at first, and then acquiesced in and forgotten. Things went from bad to worse unchallenged…”
Speaking of rewriting history, Forster makes a case for the importance of remembering. It’s often said that the opposite of love is indifference because to hate is to care and this quote is similar in its sentiment. In The Machine Stops, one of the reasons society slides underground and allows The Machine to dictate how things are done is because people stopped complaining. They became desensitized to the injustices around them and began to accept them as commonplace, so long as their individual needs were met. This desensitization is happening today on a number of fronts and this book is a good reminder not to become complacent.
If Forster were alive today, I imagine he would be shocked to see how spot-on he was about the future of humanity. I also think he’d see those who challenge the status quo as leading humanity out of the darkness. This is, of course, pure speculation, but if you’ve read the story, please share your thoughts in the comments. In the meantime, remember: “The Machine is much, but it is not everything.”
Recommended for: Readers who are confused by today’s political landscape and want to be a bit horrified.