The Machine Stops  

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"But I can see you!" she exclaimed. "What more do you want?"
"I want to see you not through the Machine," said Kuno. "I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine."
"Oh, hush!" said his mother, vaguely shocked. "You mustn"t say anything against the Machine."
"Why not?"
"One mustn"t."
"You talk as if a god had made the Machine," cried the other. "I believe that you pray to it when you are unhappy. Men made it, do not forget that. Great men, but men. The Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That is why I want you to come. Pay me a visit, so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my mind." --"The Machine Stops" (1909) by E.M. Forster

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The Machine Stops is a science fiction short story (of 12,000 words) by E. M. Forster.

It is the story of a cyberocracy. Both George Lucas's film THX 1138 (1971) and the original novel version of Logan's Run (1967) by bear multiple similarities to "The Machine Stops".

Parallels to Plato's Cave and The Matrix have also been drawn.


Plot summary

The story describes a world in which almost all humans have lost the ability to live on the surface of the Earth, and most of the human population lives below ground. Each individual lives in isolation in a standard 'cell', with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global Machine. Travel is permitted but unpopular and rarely necessary. There are two named characters, Vashti and her son Kuno, who live on opposite sides of the world. Vashti is content with her life, which she spends producing and endlessly discussing secondhand 'ideas', as do most inhabitants of the world. Kuno, however, is a sensualist and a rebel. He is able to persuade a reluctant Vashti to endure the journey (and the resultant unwelcome personal interaction) to his cell. There, he tells Vashti of his disenchantment with the sanitized, mechanical world. He confides to her that he has visited the surface of the Earth without permission, and without the life support apparatus supposedly required to endure the toxic outer air, and that he saw other humans living outside the world of the Machine. He goes on to say that the Machine recaptured him, and that he has been threatened with 'Homelessness', that is, expulsion from the underground environment and presumed death. Vashti, however, dismisses her son's concerns as dangerous madness and returns to her part of the world.

As time passes, and Vashti continues the routine of her daily life, two important developments occur. First, the life support apparatus required to visit the outer world is abolished. Most humans welcome this development, as they are skeptical and fearful of first-hand experience and of those who desire it. Secondly, a kind of religion is re-established, in which the Machine is the object of worship. People forget that humans created the Machine, and treat it as a mystical entity whose needs supersede their own. Those who do not accept the deity of the Machine are viewed as 'unmechanical' and are threatened with Homelessness.

During this time, Kuno is transferred to a cell near Vashti's. He comes to believe that the Machine is breaking down, and he tells Vashti cryptically, "The Machine stops." For a time, Vashti continues with her life, but eventually defects begin to appear in the Machine. At first, humans accept the deteriorations as the whim of the Machine, to which they are now wholly subservient. However, the situation continues to deteriorate, and the knowledge of how to repair the Machine has been lost over the years. Eventually, the Machine apocalyptically collapses, and the civilization of the Machine comes to an end. Kuno comes to Vashti's ruined cell, however, and before they perish they realize that Man and his connection to the natural world are what truly matter, and that it will fall to the surface-dwellers who still exist to rebuild the human race and to prevent the mistake of the Machine from being repeated.

Themes

In the preface to his Collected Short Stories (1947), Forster wrote that "'The Machine Stops' is a reaction to one of the earlier heavens of H. G. Wells." In The Time Machine, Wells had pictured the childlike Eloi living the life of leisure of Greek gods whilst the working Morlocks lived underground and kept their whole idyllic existence going. In contrast to Wells' political commentary, Forster points to the technology itself as the ultimate controlling force. As well as Forster's predicting globalisation, the internet, video conferencing, and other aspects of 21st-Century reality, Will Gompertz writing on the BBC website on 30 May 2020 said "The Machine Stops is not simply prescient; it is a jaw-droppingly, gob-smackingly, breath-takingly accurate literary description of lockdown life in 2020."



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Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Machine Stops" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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