I love Forster’s novels, and could not resist adding one of his shorter works, The Machine Stops, to my Classics Club list. I borrowed a Penguin Mini Modern Classics edition, which includes another short story entitled ‘The Celestial Omnibus’, from my local library. The blurb says the following: ‘Forster is best known for his exquisite novels, but these two affecting short stories brilliantly combine the fantastical with the allegorical’.
‘The Machine Stops’ and ‘The Celestial Omnibus’ are incredibly different in terms of both their plots and themes; the title story takes place underground, where society has isolated itself, and the other deals with a young boy who ‘takes a trip his parents believe impossible’. Whilst ‘The Celestial Omnibus’ is an interesting tale, and one which is well worth reading, I have decided to focus solely upon ‘The Machine Stops’ for the purpose of my review.
‘The Machine Stops’ was first published in 1909, and was collected together with some of Forster’s other short works in 1928. As is the case with his novels, Forster sets scenes masterfully. ‘The Machine Stops’ begins in the following way: ‘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 arm-chair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk – that is all the furniture. And in the arm-chair 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 surface of the earth is only dust and mud, no life remains on it… One dies immediately in the outer air… Few travelled in these days for, thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over. Rapid intercourse, from which the previous civilisation had hoped so much, had ended by defeating itself. What was the good of going to Pekin when it was just like Shrewsbury?’, is our chilling introduction to the world. Forster then goes on to set out mankind’s advances: ‘She knew several thousand people; in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously’. In this, and other elements which he introduces to the dystopian world of his creation – the citizens, for example, talk to one another through ‘The Machine’, a kind of video-conference tool in which they can see one another: it ‘only gave a general idea of people – an idea that was good enough for all practical purposes’ – it is possible to draw many parallels with George Orwell’s masterful, and, of course, much later work, 1984.
I am not the biggest fan of dystopian stories in general, but I found this utterly fascinating. Forster is an author whom I greatly admire, and the fact that he is able to turn his hand to such diverse plots, settings and storylines merely reinforces this further. ‘The Machine Stops’ is clever, taut, and well written, and every single element of it has clearly been so well thought through.