E. M. Forster’s prescient short story, published in 1906, foretells of a world where humans have renounced human connection in exchange for constant stimulus and comfort, provided to them by “The Machine.” Reading this short story, I was struck by Forster’s ability to envision a future where humans had become imprisoned by their blind pursuit of progress, at the expense of nature, connection, and ultimately their humanity. I worry often that this is the path we are currently traveling down.
A few quotes I found especially relevant:
“He broke off, and she fancied that he looked sad. She could not be sure, for the Machine did not transmit nuances of expression. It only gave a general idea of people – an idea that was good enough for all practical purposes…The imponderable bloom, declared by a discredited philosophy to be the actual essence of intercourse, was rightly ignored by the Machine, just as the imponderable bloom of the grape was ignored by the manufacturers of artificial fruit. Something “good enough” had long since been accepted by our race.”
“But Humanity, in its desire for comfort, had overreached itself. It had exploited the riches of nature too far. Quietly and complacently, it was sinking into decadence, and progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine.”
“Cover the window, please. These mountains give me no ideas.”
The first quote actually predicts the limitations of modern communications, namely text and IM chat, where you read someone’s words, yet are never actually sure of their tone. There are few conventions, like ALL CAPS for angry, or “lol” for being amused, but ultimately we have sacrificed actual conversations in favor of being able to talk to our friends at work or in class. One word of advice, which I’m sure you already know, is to never instigate serious conversations over IM. They usually end badly.
Another thing that always interests me when reading science fiction written in the past, is that authors tend to an amazing job creating an allegorical world, and make predictions about society or technology that actually come to pass. However, there are always signs of the time that the stories are written, and limitations to the scope of their vision. For instance, in Forster’s story, the main character Vashti clutches at the “Book of the Machine,” a sort of Bible or manual to tell humans what to do when various problems arise. Perhaps because Forster is an author, and can’t conceive of a world where the book object has become obsolete, she doesn’t invent a different form for this holy manual. In Brave New World, I seem to remember there being an infinitely large office building, which stored catalog cards with data about every single person. Aldous Huxley was able to envision many things that ended up happening, but the modern computer was not one of them. And to list one more, in Bladerunner (the movie not the Philip K. Dick short story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) the characters all talk using video phones, but this happens in phone booths not hand-held devices or personal computers (ah, 80s scifi).
So, to return to Forster’s story, although “civilization” ends and everyone dependent on “The Machine” dies alone in the dark, it is ultimately hopeful. Apparently all along there had been people cast out from society, who rejected the life of comfort and dependence, and sought to live above ground or outside the control of the Machine, Vashti’s son Kuno one of them. When the Machine stops, and everyone panics, there are a few waiting above ground to start over. Vashti thinks they will start the machine again. Kuno thinks “humanity has learned its lesson.” In the end they both perish looking at the “untainted sky.” Forster didn’t predict that humanity’s actual story would lead to a tainted atmosphere in less than 100 years.