E.M. Forster invents the iPad

September 30, 2022 3 Comments

Years ago my friend C and I challenged each other to read, all the way through, a Classic Long Book.  My challenge was Moby-Dick, and his was Bleak House.  Whether C ever reached Melville’s majestic final line, ‘… and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago’, I can’t now remember, but I know I failed to keep my side of the bargain.  I threw away the Dickens with my usual exasperation after a few chapters.

That experience hasn’t stopped us recommending books to each other.  Recently C suggested I read a Classic Short Book, E. M. Forster’s novella, or long short story, The machine stops.  Not only did I get safely to the end of it, I agreed with him that it’s an astonishing piece of writing, especially when read from the standpoint of the year 2022.

Literary science fiction was a well-established genre in 1909, when Forster first published When the machine stops in the Oxford and Cambridge ReviewH.G Wells had published a series of socially-focussed novels set in the future, beginning in 1895 with The time machine.  Conan Doyle and Kipling joined the trend, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman would later publish her feminist novel Herland.

It’s entirely fair to label The machine stops science fiction, since Forster relishes his technological inventions in the first half of his story.  The inhabitants of Earth now live underground – the surface has been reduced, in some unexplained ecological catastrophe, to ‘dust and mud’ – in platform-based cells or pods. The all-powerful Machine gives them every possible means of satisfying their physical and mental requirements, without the need ever to step beyond the door.  Vashti, the leading figure in the tale, only has to extend her finger and press different buttons in order to talk to others, get food, read literature, listen to lectures, take a bath and summon her bed (Forster’s version of the ‘internet of things’}.  Printed books are obsolete (‘the forest had been destroyed during the literature epoch for the purpose of making newspaper-pulp’), with one exception, the Book of the Machine.  In this volume, published by the Central Committee, can be found ‘instructions against every possible contingency’ (Forster’s Google).  Vashti speaks to her son, Kuno, who lives on the other side of the world, via a glowing round plate she holds in her hand (Forster’s iPad).  After the conversation she catches up on the flood of electronic messages that have arrived in the meantime (Forster’s emails or texts) and gives a short talk to a remote audience (Forster’s Zoom).

Travel, the ‘clumsy system of public gatherings’, and indeed any form of real, physical human contact, have been made unnecessary and are discouraged by the authorities, the Committee of the Machine.  Kuno, though, wants his mother to come to him.  Reluctantly, she leaves her home and takes an air-ship north (air-ships, a relic from an earlier age, still operate) to visit him.  It’s a frightening journey for her, this partial encounter with the real world (‘the terrors of real experience’).  She reacts through denial.  ‘No ideas here’, Vashti mutters, as they pass over Greece, the generally acknowledged cradle of western civilisation.

Kuno tells his mother that he has found a way to the surface, ‘on my own feet’, without an ‘Egression-permit’ from the authorities. For this crime his likely punishment is Homelessness – a fatal verdict.  To find the strength to escape like this is unusual. Humans are bred to become physically weak (Forster’s witty inversion of the usual eugenicist line) so that they will adapt to a passive way of living.  For Kuno,

Man is the measure.  That was my first lesson.  Man’s feet are the measure of distance, his hands are the measure of ownership, his body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong.

Yvonne Mitchell as Vashti (1966 TV adaptation)

Kuno tells how he succeeded in reaching the above-ground world of air and sunlight and grass.  He realises how the underworld he has left is one of un-life, of loss of humanity, of servitude to the Machine, which may have been invented by humans, but which now rules them.  In the end, though he is found, snatched and returned to the underground world, where he awaits his sentence.  Vashti, the ‘advanced thinker’, is appalled by her son’s rebellion and disavows him.

In the final part of the story Vashti finds that aspects of the Machine’s regime are changing.  It becomes forbidden to gain any experience of the world above – this is rationalised in the slogans, worthy of Orwell’s 1984, ‘beware of first-hand ideas’ and ‘first-hand ideas do not really exist’ – and religion is reintroduced in the form of worship of the Machine.

The Machine is no Big Brother, and Forster has no interest in its development or means of asserting power.  His focus is on the results of its dominion, the final triumph of what we call today Virtual Reality, in which all individual contact with the physical world has been irretrievably lost.  Lost, too, is all human agency.  It’s the Machine and its ministers who decide, on behalf of humans, what is best for them.  Artificial Intelligence has already reached its logical conclusion, total domination over its inventors – just as some AI experts in 2022 fear it will in future.

Caroline Gruber as Vashti (2016 Theatre Royal, York production)

Mercifully, the domination of Forster’s Machine has its limits.  As the title of the story says plainly enough, it finally breaks down.  Vashti and her fellow subterranean humans find themselves helpless when the buttons they press to supply every want begin to fail.  Though death awaits them all, the ending is consoling.  Kuno, mysteriously still unHomelessed, reappears to tell his mother that ‘humanity has learnt its lesson’, and that the future lies with those few humans still on the surface, free from the shackles of digital servitude.

In his piece on The machine stops Will Gompertz notices that the year of its first appearance, 1909, coincided with the publication of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, with its adulation of speed, war and the machine.  All three were combined, five years later, in the Great War, which swept away the past Marinetti so detested (and did away with Futurism too).  Forster’s defence of humanism against its enemies was a warning against that disaster – and, as it turns out, against the impending cyber-dictatorships of our own time.

Comments (3)

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  1. Emyr says:

    Diolch am flogiad hynod o ddiddorol eto.

    Dwi’n falch dy fod wedi mynegi fy union deimladau innau wrth ddarllen Dickens. Dewr a gonest iawn. Ac mae’r gic fach at futurism ar y diwedd yn berl.

  2. I got a laugh out of this. Dislike of Dickens is the reader’s sin ‘that dare not speak its name’ but I share it with you. The problem I have with Dickens is that his villains are not just bad or wrongly motivated or greedy or something. The problem is that they’re insane. (Dickens can be a great evocative writer though.)

    Bob Consoli

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