The Machine Stops, by E.M. Forster, uses a central theme of humankind’s over reliance on technology to critique absolutism, totalitarianism, and religion. Early in the story, the reader is provided with the conflicting beliefs of the two main characters, Vashti, who believes strongly in the goals and vision of The Machine, and her son, Kuno, who has been given reason to doubt them.
The Machine, a godlike mechanical provider of everything the society and its inhabitants want and need, places restrictions on any thoughts or actions those inhabitants may have that could threaten its hegemony. It does so primarily through indoctrination, though that is augmented by somatic medication, “tabloids,” which render the inhabitants “ridiculously cheerful” (Forster, 15.) Wrongthink is punished by “homelessness,” which is the expulsion of the inhabitant from the safe, underground environment to the supposedly deadly surface.
Vashti, a lecturer on pre-Machine history, is horrified at the prospect of her son’s rejection of The Machine’s dicta. At a time when nearly all interaction is done virtually, she begrudgingly agrees to take the long trip across the world to visit him and hear what he has to say.
Vashti’s trip is illuminating in a number of ways. Primarily, the society’s collective horror at the idea of seeing the Earth below in sunlight shows the power of The Machine’s indoctrination (Forster, 8.) To see the Earth in sunlight would show The Machine was lying about the deadly, uninhabitable surface of the planet. Even when presented with the opportunity to do this, the travelers shrink away.
Also important is the deep disgust at the idea of touching another person. “People never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the Machine (Forster, 9). Members of the society are not to use one another for comfort. The practice is entirely offloaded onto The Machine, further cementing its essentiality.
Once she reaches her son, Vashti hears what he has to tell her. She listens with growing horror and disappointment. Kuro tells the tale of his slow escape from the curated menagerie of their society, clutching his respirator and breaching into the world, only to discover it it was not a deadly wasteland where the air alone would kill, but a hilly, grassy, sunlit land like those referenced in the histories Vashti teaches.
The intervening years saw the abolition of the respirator – something that had given Kuro a practical reason to attempt an escape. The Machine also legalizes religion — a religion where it goes from an essential provider to a venerated deity.
As The Machine clamps down harder to ensure its domination, it begins to break down. The inhabitants, who for countless generations lived and breathed and thought and worshipped under the shadow of The Machine, are left alone for the first time in their existence. The shock kills many of them outright as the rest are left to writhe and scream in the unlistening darkness. Human society resumes above ground with the exiled homeless.
While countless parallels to today’s society can be made from a technological perspective, such as the ubiquity of telepresence, to the Amazon Prime-like “civilization […] bringing things to people” (Forster, 5), to the overall sense of unease shared by many who believe we are over reliant on technology, I found strong arguments against totalitarianism, collectivism, and religious fundamentalism.
A passage on page 11 was haunting, as it described the violently enforced egalitarianism of the society. The strong were destroyed at birth, for The Machine claimed “[they] would have never been happy in that state of life” (Forster, 11.) This is an inversion of the ancient Spartan society referenced later in the mention of Mount Taygetos, from which the Spartans were claimed to have thrown their weak babies. The Machine had no need for strong individuals. Weakness was preferred.
The redefining of knowledge on pages 18-19 is also something seen throughout totalitarian regimes. “Beware first hand ideas!” is another way of saying “don’t believe your lying eyes” (Forster, 18). Further, the claim that “there will be a generation that had got beyond facts, beyond impressions, a generation absolutely colourless, a generation ‘seraphically free from taint of personality” demands the filtering of facts through an endless stream of subjective and ideological lenses so all that remains is a narrative that suits the goals of the primary authority (Forster, 19).
There are far more examples that I can cite, but I assume it is clear there are many levels of parallels between The Machine Stops and not just the society in which we live today, but of societies that have existed in the past only to collapse under the weight of their own oppression. Anywhere, it seems, where such top-down restrictions upon thought, movement, and potential exist, the machine enforcing them will begin to fail.