There’s a lot of people out there who are doubtful about sci-fi. Isn’t it all weirdly phallic spaceships flying about and aliens shooting at each other using an assortment of weapons that look like someone took the contents of a kitchen drawer and went bananas with a can of spray paint and some furniture polish, they wonder? And, yes, there is that. But kitchen utensils notwithstanding, I’ve always been an unabashed lover of the genre. So it was a source of endless delight to me to discover that one of my favourite early 20th-century writers had written a short story set in a dystopian world run by something known only as the Machine.
There’s been a whole lot of buzz recently about E.M. Forster’s short story, The Machine Stops, in light of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s not too difficult to see why – Forster created a world where human contact is minimised, and everyone interacts through the Machine, where people live underground for fear of the surface of the earth, isolated in their rooms and cut off from everything we’re so used to enjoying in our own lives, like sunlight and sex and mojitos, presumably, because people seem to like drinks with little umbrellas in them.
The fact that this story is receiving renewed attention in light of the coronavirus epidemic just highlights how powerful science fiction can be. As with Orwell’s 1984, the real point isn’t whether or not Forster or Orwell predicted precisely what would happen in the future (they didn’t, because then that would be spooky and otherworldly and we’d have to start talking about mystic powers and crystals and then maxing out your Netflix account would be the least of your worries), but rather the fact that they chose to imagine how human beings might behave in the future, based on what they’re like now.
Even if Forster hadn’t written this short story, we’d probably still be looking to him today, if nothing else for that simple motto from Howards End that sums up the crux of most of his stories: “Only connect!”. Forster’s concern with the way that people relate to one another, with human connection, is what drives his books, and this story in particular. And I think it’s the reason his books have this peculiar ability to suck you in without you even being aware of it. You connect with the story first of all.
Of course Forster didn’t uncannily predict the internet, or the coronavirus or anything like that – but he did think about human connection and extrapolate to an uncanny extent, and you could argue that the isolation that his characters experience, the lack of direct human contact, is an extreme version of our world today, where our only real relationship is with the machine that runs our lives, and that we can’t bear to be apart from. Even before corona, just to be clear.
This is a sci-fi story that I would heartily recommend to sci-fi sceptics. For me, it contains all the things that I love to see most in the genre: beautiful writing, philosophical and moral questions that are relevant for the present (and, indeed, continue to be relevant as time passes), and meditations on what it ultimately means to be human. It’s not perfect, of course. For one, I’d have infinitely preferred the addition of an epic spaceship battle or two. But if you’re a sci-fi sceptic stuck at home and counting the fringes on your curtains for the seventy-sixth time (been there), or if you’re a sci-fi lover who also happens to adore E.M. Forster, then I’d definitely recommend you read this story. Download it to your tablet, put some soothing background music on your mobile phone, check to make sure that the Amazon drone about to drop off your groceries won’t be coming for the next thirty minutes or so, and delve right in. Think about how lucky we are that the world isn’t quite as insane as it appears to be in Forster’s story, and then tell your husband, or your kid, or friend, or your neighbour, about it too.
Oh, and have a drink with a little umbrella in it if you like.