The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster

It’s Thanksgiving, and usually, we look at a turkey for Throwback Thursday… meaning bad science fiction. But since the spirit of Thanksgiving is about family just as much as it inevitably is about mean-spiritedness (we’re looking at you, Aunt Liz), I thought I’d shift gears this year and look at a science fiction short story about family… or in this case, a mother and her son.

But first, let’s touch on the author because this is not a name you associate with science fiction: E.M. Forster. This is probably because he only wrote one short story in that genre, but also because the majority of his work was high literature. For some reason, people think that a person who would be nominated for the Nobel in literature would ever stoop so low as to produce something sensationalist as science fiction. Naturally, I think science fiction tends to do a better job addressing the human condition than “literature” does, so I am not among those. Nevertheless, E.M. Forster is not a name we think of when we think science fiction.
“The Machine Stops” is about a mother and a son who live underground, taken care of by a machine. People don’t travel, and they communicate essentially by Facetime. The son confesses that he has gone to the outside world, and thinks humans shouldn’t rely on the machine. This naturally concerns the mother, so she ignores him and goes home. It’s then that she starts to notice little things breaking down in the machine. Then, humans start worshipping the machine and forgetting that they had created it.
The machine does break down, killing everyone as humans are no longer evolved to survive the outside world. All that lives are the surface-dwelling humans who must rebuild society. The message is clearly that when humans lose their connection to nature, they doom themselves to extinction.
“The Machine Stops” is a great bit of short literature that touched on themes of isolation, relying on machines, and the loss of original thought.  You know, things we all worry about today, only Forster was talking about it in 1908.
Let that sink in. This story was written before climate change was a thing to worry about and before we all had cars we relied on to get to work. It’s a cautionary tale so before its time that I think it is oft-forgotten and oft-disregarded. Forster conceived of a world with internet, failing human connections, and the inability to evolve properly with nature in 1908! Computers were barely even a 1/100th of a thing then!
What’s even more fascinating is that he wrote about it through the lens of a mother and a son, which in the early 1900s should have been an infallible relationship of love and support. Essentially, Forster chose a relationship that should not be disrupted to prove a point about the nasty future that was in store for us if we continued down our path with technology.
So, if you want a good short story to read that will make you feel itchy about the upcoming apocalypse, read “The Machine Stops” by one of the greatest literary geniuses of our century. You won’t regret it.