Sunday, April 05, 2020

The Machine Stops

E. M. Forster: The Machine Stops (1909)

Clearly I'm not the first one to notice the extraordinary prescience shown by E. M. Forster in his long short story "The Machine Stops," first published in The Oxford and Cambridge Review in November 1909.

Forster envisages a world where people live cocooned in little cells, with audiovisual contact with one another, and minimal travel from place to place. His protagonist, Vashti, is largely content with her situation, and displays nothing but irritation at the attempts of her son, Kuno, to interest her in the forbidden regions outside.

Everything - nourishment, entertainment, contact - is supplied by the Machine, which is now the main deity worshipped by mankind, despite having been originally designed to serve them. Now, however, the machine has started to falter, to lag in its daily attentions to the human parasites that infest it.

Kuno wants his mother to accompany him outside, where he is sure that he once saw some living human beings. Her reluctance to do so spells her own doom. As the two of them die, however, they at least have the satisfaction of seeing the possibility of escape from the Machine's mechanical womb.
"But, Kuno, is it true? Are there still men on the surface of the earth? Is this - this tunnel, this poisoned darkness - really not the end?"
He replied: "I have seen them, spoken to them, loved them. They are hiding in the mist and the ferns until our civilisation stops. Today they are the Homeless - tomorrow -"
"Oh, tomorrow - some fool will start the Machine again, tomorrow."
"Never," said Kuno, "never. Humanity has learnt its lesson."
As he spoke, the whole city was broken like a honeycomb. An airship had sailed in through the vomitory into a ruined wharf. It crashed downwards, exploding as it went, rending gallery after galley with its wings of steel. For a moment they saw the nations of the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of the untainted sky.

H. G. Wells: When the Sleeper Wakes (1899)

Forster himself called his story "a reaction to one of the earlier heavens of H. G. Wells" - presumably the one depicted in the latter's novel When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) - reissued, in revised form, as The Sleeper Awakes in 1912.

Not that Wells's picture of the future - in this novel, at least - is a narrowly utopian one. The society his sleeper, Graham, wakes into is a profoundly troubled one. The amount of his own savings have accumulated, due to compound interest, during the long centuries of his sleep, to such an incredible total that they are now the principal economic mainstay of the world. The rest of the book examines the implications of such capitalist plutocracy as against the apparent hope provided by revolutionary socialism.

Both are found wanting in this bleak early vision by a writer later criticised for his naive acceptance of purely scientific values. Once again, if you read his books yourself rather than accepting such bland critical summaries, the actual implications of his work are far more nuanced and complex.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970)

Be that as it may, Wells' truths were certainly different from Forster's. In a sense they embody two contradictory world-views - based, respectively, on the private and the public life. Forster concerned himself almost exclusively with the personal values bound up in his famous adage: "Only connect." His books are all about moments of emotional epiphany and contact over seemingly unbridgeable gulfs of background and class.

W. H. Auden perhaps expressed it best in the last of his 1938 group of Sonnets from China:

(to E.M. Foster)

Though Italy and King's are far away,
And Truth a subject only bombs discuss,
Our ears unfriendly, still you speak to us,
Insisting that the inner life can pay.

As we dash down the slope of hate with gladness,
You trip us up like an unnoticed stone,
And, just when we are closeted with madness,
You interrupt us like the telephone.

Yes, we are Lucy, Turton, Philip: we
Wish international evil, are delighted
To join the jolly ranks of the benighted

Where reason is denied and love ignored,
But, as we swear our lie, Miss Avery
Comes out into the garden with a sword.

H. G. Wells (1866-1946)

Wells, by contrast, ended in a state of utter despair, as the Second World War erupted to dash into pieces all his hopes of international betterment. The title of his last book Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945) says it all.

Having said that, though, much though I enjoy Forster's fiction and essays, if it came to a choice between the two, I would go for Wells every time. Forster's Collected Short Stories (1950) is 246 pages long. Wells's Short Stories (1927) runs to over 1,000 pages, and includes such masterpieces as "The Time Machine," "A Story of the Days to Come," "A Dream of Armageddon," and dozens of others - it's one of the great books of the twentieth century.

Luckily, I don't have to choose. I can enjoy both of their different insights, and shelve them side-by-side in a propinquity I fear they could never have achieved in their lifetimes.

Twelve Modern Short Novels
[illustrated by B. Biro (c.1950s)]
Twelve Modern Short Novels: A Collection of the Shorter Works of Writers of Distinction from the Eighties of the Last Century to the Present Day. Decorations by B. Biro. London: Odhams Press Limited, n.d. (c. 1950s).

I see from the inside of my copy (which is light blue rather than red in colour, but is otherwise identical with that pictured above) that I purchased it on 30th September 1977. It was certainly an auspicious day for me.

You can see from the list of contents below just what a treasure-house of stories this book contains. I'd read very few of these authors previously, and it had the effect of introducing me to some of the real triumphs of late nineteenth / early twentieth-century prose.

  1. [1887] - Oscar Wilde: "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime: A Study of Duty"

  2. [1888] - Rudyard Kipling: "The Man Who Would Be King"

  3. [1902] - Joseph Conrad: "Heart of Darkness"

  4. [1911] - E. M. Forster: "The Machine Stops"

  5. [1919] - Max Beerbohm: "Enoch Soames"

  6. [1922] - Aldous Huxley: "The Gioconda Smile"

  7. [1927] - Thornton Wilder: "The Bridge of San Luis Rey"

  8. [1936] - Katherine Anne Porter: "Noon Wine"

  9. [1936] - Graham Greene: "The Basement Room"

  10. [1939] - Ernest Hemingway: "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber"

  11. [1945] - Mary Lavin: "The Becker Wives"

  12. [1946] - H. E. Bates: "The Cruise of 'The Breadwinner'"

No editor's name for the volume is given - only that of the illustrator, a certain 'B. Biro' (later to be known as Val Biro). He may - for all I know - have chosen the contents as well, but the contingency seems an unlikely one, given his youth at the time, and the sheer size of his graphic output: "3,000 covers in less than 40 years," as Nick Jones revealed in his "Interview with Val Biro, Artist, Illustrator, Author and Book Cover Designer" in Existential Ennui (4/8/14).

Whoever it was who selected these particular stories certainly did me a great favour, though. I suppose that I would have read the more canonical ones sooner or later, but authors such as Katharine Anne Porter and Thornton Wilder were much less familiar currency at the time.

Also, would I really have appreciated "The Machine Stops" quite so much if it hadn't been bookended between the dark profundities of "Heart of Darkness" and the bittersweet satire of Beerbohm's "Enoch Soames"?

"The Basement Room," too. It would be many years before I saw Carol Reed's film The Fallen Idol (1948), and then, I'm afraid, my main impulse was to exclaim that he'd got it wrong. The squalid suburban horrors of Greene's parable had somehow been transferred to the glamorous setting of an embassy.

The lessons screenwriter and director learnt from this experience must have supplied at least some of the ingredients which went into their next collaboration, the immortal Third Man (1949).


Richard said...

I have had that book 12 Modern Novels for some time. I have read Conrad's story/novella several times. (I didn't notice who had edited or illustrated it). It is cryptic in that department like a lot of the books of that time.

But not 'The Machine'. I did get an edition of Forster's stories as someone I knew had drawn from his stories for inspirations for some interesting poems she wrote. They are good.

Of course Wells is great. I read various of his books years ago -- War of the Worlds, the voyage to the moon book, and more recently re-read The Time Machine which is brilliant, and The Island of Dr Moreau which is close to a horror story (worth reading but a bit much for me!). I cant see 'When the Sleeper Wakes'.

I do have 'The Stolen Bacillus' and other stories and (of course) neither that nor my Omnibus has 'When the Sleeper...'.

I agree though re Wells. And he also wrote novels that were not sci fi. His Time Machine is the starting point for James Gleick's book on Time. Gleick wrote 'Information' and a book about Chaos Theory and so on. it is interesting that in the debate between Bergson and Einstein, which in a sense turned on itself as it wasn't really Einstein versus Bergson -- but it is interesting that movies and books (like that of Wells) played as much a part in the thinking of many scientists (who were often and still are often, philosophers also) on time. Well's works are still relevant. Aristotle struggled with time,how to define it or talk about it etc and so do philosophers and other to this day. So Wells was on to things. His novels, non sci-fi are good also.

Thanks for this I will now make a commitment to actually read the 12 Stories. I'll start with Forster's one! ( As well as looking at some of those other stories of Wells, (I did like the stories) I read by Forster also and also I need to read Forster's other famous novels as the only one of those I have read is 'Voyage to India' which I liked a lot).

Inspiring post.

Richard said...

I read The Machine Stops. In the same book. It is prescient. I also read the Gioconda smile and in my old book of English short stories Conrad's 'An Outpost of Progress' and 'The Country of the Blind' by Wells*. This post has got me onto a short story reading jag, or at least one somewhat connected to dis-utopias. The Giaconda Smile by Huxley is good also. Now for Kipling's famous 'The Man Who Would Be King'.

Also in a more modern collection I re-read a strange story (but good) by Attwood, called 'The Man From Mars' (It's not sci fi). But re her Joyce Carol Oates writes ina book of essays an essay about Attwood's book of essays! I had read (some of) that in the intro to 'The Hand Maid's Tale'...and THAT got me to one of Attwoods list including Zamyatin's 'We'. As far as this kind of stuff goes, that is the one I think I like most. Although '1984' is good. And related I feel in some ways is 'The Time Machine' (almost required reading?)...

But in my binge I read (reading about Southern writers) a story of Eurora Welty's called 'The Death of a Traveling Salesman' which I found very different from much I had read before...except possibly Peter Taylor's stories, almost. Welty is gentler and more focused I feel than Toole. I am abivalent about his book. The descriptions and characters are great but it does seem -- almost pointless. But then perhaps it requires a re-read. Re Welty, I once sold as many of the Pulitzer prize winners to someone who liked them. In the process I read 'The Optimist's Daughter' I need to re-read it.

I see Welty was the the firs in that American Library Series so I might get her that way.

As to Wells: years ago 'The Invisible Man', 'The First Men on the Moon' and 'The History of Mr Polly' as well as 'War of the Worlds'. Attwood prefers the Jules Verne kind of books connected to the earth and perhaps more 'placed'. Meanwhile I want to re-read 'Cat's Eye'.

Joyce Carol Oates herself wrote some amazing stories and novels. (So many I would hate to study all her books as Boyd did with Nabokov!). Her stories are quite memorable also. Like many of those of Somerset Maugham. She ranges wider in her mode though (obviously from Maugham but from Attwood I think and others) from a kind of savage but vital magic realism and endless stories within stories of 'Bellfeur', to the more realist 'You Must Remember This'. Of her stories one I recall vividly was called, I am fairly sure: 'Transfigured Night' (the protagonist goes out with a man to a concert where they play Schoenberg's famous music. It is the journey home that is dramatic. The ending is clever.

When I dialed up 12 Modern Novels, Odhams, and B. Biro [my copy has a stamp belonging to Harry Goodwin who I knew off and on a few years back, he was a poet and book man)...when I do that it goes to many of your Blog entries Jack!

*I was sure I had read that but it seems different. It was about 1968 or so so I suppose I myself was different!

Dr Jack Ross said...

There are two versions of Wells's 'The Country of the Blind' - the original one included in the Collected Stories, and a subsequent expanded one with a slightly different ending included in the more recent Complete Stories. You may be right when you say it 'seems different,' then - or it could just be a trick of memory.

Joyce Caol Oates is indeed dauntingly prolific. I see from wikipedia that she's written 58 novels to date, as well as numerous collections of stories and essays. I read one called Zombie some years ago, on Liv Macassey's recommendation, which was frighteningly proficient.

Richard said...

HI Jack, I recall you said you had read Zombie. I got to Oates as I had picked up 'Odd Jobs' (essays by Updike, later I acquired it from the library where I had been reading it on and off since about 1995). Updike recommended the ones I read and I also read a lot of her stories. I would like to read more...

Liv also liked, as an aside (as if such were unusual from me!), The Vivisector by Patrick White, I also loved that, but I think we shared that we had read 'Bellfleur' which is so different from Zombie etc...

But it could be right about Well's story, as well as memory, as the ending seemed different. I intend to get that collected. By the way there was something very poetic about that ending which had him on the mountain, as if alive but he is dead. Wells could do the strange and even almost nauseating, like The Island of Dr Moreau, as well as the suddenly quite poetic, even immense which is in and beside the narrative (exciting) of The Time Machine which I re-read recently. James Gleick bases his Information, which is more scientific than literary, on Well's book about time. But the two aspects of knowledge are closer than is often acknowledged. Indeed he has the poetical daughter of Byron as the first "computer" programmer of a (theoretical) algorithm for Babbage's computer which was not as naive as it seems to us.

Wells was more venerated in his time, and he should still be. Joyce got him to sub to his Ulysses which I think was not only politic but good as Wells was no fool. Forster of course was a good writer, and it is no competition: but as luck would have it my collection of stories of his has none of his sci fi ones.

Attwood agonizes over the placing of Sci Fi etc which Oates thinks is due to her father being a scientist and needing to categorize things etc. But these genres frequently mix in the best writers.