Responses to “The Machine Stops” and ‘Metropolis’

A Response to:

The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster

The date of publication gives a good idea behind the motivations and intentions of this short story. During early 1900s new technologies and inventions emerged; among these were the Zeppelin and Internal Combustion engine. It’s probably no wonder these inventions and many other of the time were referenced. If anything The Machine Stops serves as a cautionary tale, due to the rapid changes in culture and technology of the day. Much of the technology described in The Machine Stops appears archaic by today’s standards, however this does not hurt it’s experience. Rather through the narrative’s execution, it lends it a certain uniqueness and authenticity.

Plot wise, The Machine Stops is very simplistic. A mother goes to see her renegade son, disowns him due to his radical ideals, then regrets it later when her world crumbles around her. Rather than a series of events to engage and tell the ‘tale’ of the world of The Machine Stops, Foster goes on to describe the world in depth from the characters perspective; principally Vashti the mother. From the Cells of the living galleries, to the scenes from the airships, to the recount of Kuno’s escapade outside the machine on the surface of the earth, each scene is packed with information used to fuel Visualization. As I read the short story, the visualizations I came up with reminded me vaguely of Ann Rand’s Anthem. Although different in terms of descriptions of technology; Anthem focused more on societies deficiencies, whereas The Machine Stops relied heavily on descriptions to tell its tale. I draw parallels with Anthem because both stories revolve around going against the status quo, in a world after a disaster.

The interaction between Vashti and her son Kuno could be viewed as a microcosm of the society as a whole. The only problem with that line of thinking is that Kuno is the only known renegade in the story, while Vashti personifies the vast majority of the populace living within the machine. Vashti’s character could be taken as the common citizen of the machine, who realizes too late the consequences of not questioning the circumstances of her life and her environment. Her only redemption was that she had her son and his experiences to make sense of the calamity at the end.

The question of whether or not the society of The Machine Stops was a Utopia is a hard one to answer. It’s never explained why the machine stopped working. If it continued to operate indefinitely then what? To the ‘people of the machine’ it was truly a utopia. All basic needs were provided. All higher needs such as communication, interaction, fulfillment, and information were also provided by the machine. Although an individual’s freedom was limited, that didn’t mean the individual was not content; pretty much everyone was content and then some in the machine. From an outsiders prospective and bias, the idea of the machine is basically that of a glorified prison. So which is correct? Can that be even answered? We are not even aware of the previous generation’s intentions when they built the machine. What if their circumstances were worse off than Vashti and Kuno’s. The fact that these questions are swimming in my head, leaves me a little bitter with the conclusion of the story. What would be more interesting would be to see how the ‘people of the machine’ and the ‘people outside the machine’ would have had to co-exist with the machines destruction. Or how the two cultures would clash had the machine continued to operate.

It could be argued that The Machine Stops is too ‘black and white’ in it’s social commentary of technology and society as a whole; given there is such commentary to begin with. By that I mean that the story tries to label everything the machine stood for as ‘wrong’. To make a correlation with today’s world: what if we were to take away electricity? If we viewed our combined technology and power grids all over the world as the ‘machine’ and took that away, would we be in the same situation as Vashti and Kuno? I doubt it, as The Machine Stops seems to to take a hyperbolic outlook on technology. However since a correlation can be drawn, it can be said we would be in a sorry state if such a thing came to pass. However that does not mean our technology does not give us a great deal of benefits. What we trade for some of our more natural properties, we gain something in return.

I would also like to point out a few things to add as food for thought:

  • References to “God” and the creation of a religion surrounding a machine. It seems like a natural phenomenon of humans to want to worship something. Why is that? First thing that comes to mind is a sense of security.
  • The idea that direct experience is bad, and only second hand information is valuable. I find this to be an interesting point. After all isn’t this what we do every day? For example as students we look up information on the internet or libraries, which is essentially second hand information. The difference between us and the ‘people of the machine’ is that we don’t have an aversion to direct experience. It’s just not practical to strive for direct experience, as we can’t be everywhere at once.
  • Youths’ openness to change, or rebelliousness towards the status quo. This is represented by Kuno rebelling against the ideas of his mother.
  • Can we apply the supposed message of “The Machine Stops” to today’s take on global warming and climate change? I reference the fact that many people ignore blatant scientific evidence to support global warming.
  • Do names such as Vashti and Kuno from an Indian or Asian influence? Is this due to British influence around the world during the early 1900s?

A Response to:

‘Metropolis’ (Friz Lang)

Metropolis’ impetus can be summarized in one word: Empathy. Had Freder not had that quality, the events of ‘Metropolis’ could not have happened. Had Joh Fredersen not ultimately expressed this quality, he probably would have died and/or had his city crumble around him due to uprisings. The movie opens with great promise and expectations. We’re introduced into a ‘futuristic’ city with a dual class society. The privileged live above ground living a life of luxury, while the ‘workers’ live below the city surface in a sort of subterranean ghetto. The visuals along with the movie’s context fuel the viewers imagination.

Unfortunately after the first half of the movie, things go down hill. It boils down to it being too predictable. Richest guy’s son becomes the catalyst between social classes, Rich son falls in love with the female cultist on a whim, biblical references, and so on. I suppose its a trend with older stories to relegate conflicts into simplistic “black and white” circumstances.

Another frustration I had with the movie is that events of the story simply happen without any apparent cause and effect; seemingly for the sake of just moving the plot along. Examples of this are everywhere: Maria just walks into the gardens with a hoard of kids seemingly unopposed her whole trip from the ghetto, Rotwang just happens to have an entrance to the catacombs in his house, destroying the machines just happens to cause flooding to the ghetto, there just happens to be no police or military to deter worker uprising,Rotwang’s switch just finally flips and he decides that the real Maria is Hel at the end of the movie, etc. This kind of spontaneous storytelling degrades the overall experience.

In terms of acting, it is a little hard to get used to. Most of the cast rely on exaggerated gestures and movements to convey their respective parts. The frustrating thing about this is that it not needed. A person’s expression and unique actions in response to given stimuli can tell us all we need to know. I don’t need to flap my arms around and waddle in circles to convey anger now do I? However since this was a time when stage acting was making a transition into screen acting, I tried not to mind it as much.

In my opinion, due to my above gripe, I consider the man who played Joh Frederson to be the best actor of the cast. This is due to the fact he does not use exaggerated movements or expressions to convey emotions. For most of his screen time he uses reserved and authoritative expressions to convey a wide range of emotions. He only resorted to dramatic gestures when the scene called for it; namely when his son was fighting a lunatic on a roof. Perhaps his reserved acting style worked against him in this role, as he didn’t seem as tyrannical or ruthless as the plot would have you believe.

The defining aspect of the film has to be the “metropolis” itself. The idea of a state, country, or world spanning city is an intriguing prospect. Even though the actual size of the metropolis is never mentioned in the film, I suppose that worked in it’s favor. The audience can then use their own imagination to determine the size of the city. The concept of human society adapting to living within a gigantic city has always intrigued me; which is why I gave this movie a chance in the first place. How would people organize themselves in a mega city? What kind of culture and values would come about? What kind of organizations would exist in such a situation? What organizations would hold power? What kind of technology is needed to make mega cities? What would the economy look like? What are the benefits and disadvantages of mega cities? These are the types of questions I would ask when imagining such possibilities.

The idea of a two dimensional city in the conventional sense doesn’t have to always be the case. In the ShadowRun table-top and novels franchise we see arcologies; self sustaining densely populated living spaces. The Fallout franchise popularized the idea of subterranean city sized fallout shelters. In Star Wars we see the capital world of Coruscant, literally a planet sized city. The point I’m getting at is that the idea of mega cities, has been around for awhile and continues to be a subject of interest within the community.

The second defining aspect of the film would be the inclusion of artificial human life; or as the movie called it “the machine-man”. Interestingly, as many science fiction stories do, the humanoid machine is cast as an antagonist. I’ve always wondered why in many stories the machine has to be ‘evil’; this movie is no exception. I suppose the reason is simply that the “machine-man” was just a tool used by the slightly unhinged Rotwag. In any case, there is a strangely intense interest in giving what is essentially an inorganic object the ability to emulate human intelligence and behavior. Why bother with such shenanigans when we could simply talk to another human? I’m not sure but I’m all for it.

All in all ‘Metropolis’ was an alright movie. My aversion to the movie’s simplistic plot and underdeveloped characters, was outweighed by my interest in it’s take on a mega city and artificial life.

2 thoughts on “Responses to “The Machine Stops” and ‘Metropolis’

  1. When I was reading the machine stops, I felt myself getting angry at the actions of people in this world. I was not sure why, but you nailed my thoughts by saying it was black and white in its social commentary. Everything they did was just wrong when compared to our lives. I enjoyed your post.

  2. I really enjoyed your breakdown of these works, but I have some questions and thoughts on some of your points.

    Firstly, why do you see the ending as a “redemption” for Vashti; you’re not very clear as to why you have that opinion. You claim Vashti had her sons experiences to make sense of the calamity that was the ending; however, no one in the story made sense of it. The society as a whole, including Kuno, could not make sense of the calamity. Although Kuno foresaw the end of the machine, even he doesn’t seem to know why it has failed. The way I interpret the ending is that it is a parallel to those who look towards religion for guidance only to be left baffled as to why their lives go wrong, especially considering the religious symbolism and metaphors of the story. Overall I feel like the ending is meant to paint religion in a negative light, as it is throughout the entire story; I can understand why the ending makes you bitter, but the story was never about answers or resolution (hence why the story could never have ended with the humans living without the machines), from the very beginning it shows that it is all about its overall message.

    I really enjoyed that you questioned whether or not this society could be considered a Utopia. As professor Belli mentioned in class by default Utopias are, by nature, impossible; or are they? Personally I believe the idea of a Utopia can achieved by using the characteristics of a Dystopia like in “The Machine stops”. Let me explain, you mention that from the perspective of the denizens of this society they feel as if they live in a Utopia; an excellent point. Now, take into consideration the euthanasia of children who are seen as detrimental to this “Utopia” as well as banishment of those who become detrimental, are these not the kinds of things seen in Dystopias? To create a Utopia you would have to have a society that thinks a-like, a hive-mind if you will (also another point that shows that story is engrained with religion). If you have a society in which all people have the same values and morals, you would have a Utopia. With things such religion creating hive-minds, Utopias can be seen as feasible; however, to maintain a Utopia like this you would have to get rid of individuals who go against the status quo, much like how the society in the story were going to banish Kuno. Yes, a Utopia was created but only by using characteristics of a Dystopian society. Currently, a lot of the worlds conflicts are based on such minute things such as race and religion. It has always been my belief that if a group of individuals, lets say scientists, killed of the rest of the human population they will have in turn created a Utopia. Point is Dystopias and Utopias are seen as two completely different entities, but rather they are like good and evil; they simply co-exist with one another, as one is defined by the other.

    I’m really surprised that you think the story is too “Black and White”. I ask you this: why do you think education is brought about various times throughout the story? Although I believe the major theme is religion, there is also a theme of intellectual advancement and technology. Like I previously stated, this is purely a cautionary tale about the need to continue advancing our societies and the dangers that come with it. The story never really says machines are bad, unlike Metropolis. Instead it tells us not to be come over reliant on them. This story can be seen as a deterrent from advancing or just a helpful reminder of the things to avoid becoming in the process of advancement. In fact, this story reminds of Stephen Hawking warning scientists about the dangers of A.I, not to discourage them, but rather to remind them to proceed with caution. All of these points make its actual intent very gray; is it a deterrent? Is it just advising caution? Maybe it’s not about technology at all, maybe the technology is solely a religious metaphor. Maybe it’s stating why religion and science should always be kept separate (after all, the battle between science and religion is a huge controversy)? There are just too many ways this story can be interpreted; it is far from being black and white. Metropolis, however, is black and white; MACHINES ARE THE DEVIL!

    I know, long post,sorry.

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