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Short Story Saturday - The Machine Stops Part 1

I was first exposed to "The Machine Stops" by
E.M. Forster through a book called Scraps of the Untainted Sky. The title of the book, in fact, comes from the closing line of the short story, which the author considers to be "one of the first instance of dystopian narrative." I purchased this book several years ago in order to gain insight into my interest in dystopic literature. This interest has been newly rekindled and broadened into science fiction in general. If you call yourself a fan of science fiction and you haven't read this story, do so now or you are a fraud. If you think you don't like science fiction, I suggest you read this story and make sure. (Audio and full text are available online for free.) This short story, if you can classify it as such at 12,000 words, has 3 chapters and was published in 1909. The date of publication is overwhelming when one takes into consideration how many technological advances the author was able to predict. The post-apocalyptic dystopic story was written as "a reaction to the earlier [technological] heaven of H.G. Wells," but when we see it through the modern lens it seems completely plausible.

The story is so dense I have just decided to go over it in parts.
Part 1: The Machine

Chapter 1: The Air-Ship
"Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk - that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh - a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs."
The story opens with an invitation to bring your mind into the story. Into the room, in the words of Moylan, there sits a "quasi-human inhabitant." The story is told between the opposing politics of two characters. The one we see here is Vashti, the mother. Her opposing force is Kuno, her son. In this world, parental duties cease at the moment of birth, but it is not required to cut contact with offspring. Vashti speaks in the voice of propaganda and honor for the machine. Kuno speaks in the voice of hope and honor for the unknown.

In the first chapter we understand the world through the mother. This woman who sits inside a room, like most others of the society, sitting in this mechanical room, having every desire filled. Who attends to Vashti's needs?

The Machine does. What is the machine? Find out.

"'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."
It is not a god, yet it is treated with reverence. The Machine provides for needs and enables communication. It provides life without thought, when one does not know what to do they consult the Book of the Machine.
"In it were instructions against every possible contingency. If she was hot or cold or dyspeptic or at a loss for a word, she went to the book, and it told her which button to press."
But for Kuno there is more to life than can be told to him by the Machine. The Machine and the cells that hold the individual inhabitants are deep underground now that the surface of the Earth does not support much life. But he is still curious about it. He tells his mother, "'The Machine is much, but it is not everything.'" He also, if you recall, accuses her of, in a sense, worshiping the Machine. She is very ingrained in the ideology of the times. She believes in the Machine and all that it can bring her. She tells Kuno that his desire to go to the surface is "contrary to the spirit of the age."

Vashti recognizes that scarifies have been made for the Machine but she is happy with the conveniences it provides her. She is happy with the status quo. Kuno is pushing and fighting against it, not wanting to give up the hope for something more than sitting in a chair in an empty room and having your wishes fulfilled with the push of a button. Vashti sees no need for life to change. Current life for her is perfection. Which she expresses towards the end of the first chapter.

"How we had advanced, thanks to the Machine."

Thanks also to E.M. Forster for creating this amazing story. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am looking forward to exploring more of it with you. Have you read this story? What did you like about it? Do you want to read this story? If you do, please let me know!




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