Saturday, 1 June 2013

The imponderable bloom

Today on #edcmchat & the edcmooc Good Reads group, we discussed EM Forster's short story, "The Machine Stops". Very briefly, this story is about a future society where people live in pods underground, connected to each other through the "Machine" of the story's title. Devotion to the Machine, and the pursuit of ideas, is seen as a good thing. There is no longer any need or desire from people to venture out in to the world since the machine provides everything for them. Infact, they are proud that they have advanced beyond reliance on physical needs, and can exist in their world of ideas. The tension in the story comes from a character who wishes to break free form this, and to see the world as it is in all it's physical reality. It is a brief story, and is available to read online here.

Here are a few themes that crop up in the story, which I would say are relevant to our times and which Forster was very prescient about

1. People are brainwashed by technology
The Machine serves them with everything they need, but they also serve it to the point of being brainwashed. There are two telling passages which symbolically reflect this. One where someone drops a book, and rather than pick it up they just walk over it. And another where a character is flying over Greece and rather than look at it says, "These mountains give me no ideas". Rather than observe things and think for themselves, it is better to stay in their pods and believe a version of reality which they, and by extension, the Machine is telling them. How similar is this to our lives now? Smart phones, social media, obsessions with technology etc. The people in the story are also vain and proud of their "ideas". Forster mocks their social snobbery and pomposity regarding this. They are so blinded by the Machine that it has become a social faux pas to speak against it. Society has re-conditioned itself. This is another central theme of the story

2. Original thought is frowned upon
There is a passage in the book about a revered lecturer who speaks of the virtue in studying the French Revolution not as it happened from eyewitnesses, but from 8th, 9th, and 10th hand sources, so that eventually they might see the French Revolution as it might have happened had it happened in the age of the Machine. Once again, there are parallels with our own lives & how we consume news & opinions online. I actually think the pluses outweigh the minuses on this, but in Forster's story it is much more insidious. "Direct experience" is viewed as irrelevant, and it is socially unacceptable to speak out against it. This relates to a third theme

3. Man has become the Machine
Not a super intelligent hybrid, but rather the humans in the story have created a piece of technology that has outsmarted themselves. When the Machine begins to break, no-one can remember or understand how to fix it. Instead of acting on an original idea, they limply fall to their doom. There are also undercurrents of how the Machine is like a cult or religion that they blindly worship.
There is a lot of language in the story about "mechanical" being good, and "naked humanity" or physical muscularity being bad. However, Forster's central message is that we need to rediscover this. In one passage one of the character's speaks of how, "we only exist as the blood corpsucles that course through its arteries", but we need to get back out into the world and rediscover our physical relationship with it. This takes us to theme four.

4. Nature and Technology
Forster was reacting in this story to the idealistic technological utopias in some of HG Wells' stories.  In "The Machine Stops", nature and the natural world are powerful & positive forces. The civilisation he describes have lost touch with the physicality of both themselves and the natural word. Infact, the society practises euthanasia against strong people considering that they would be ill-suited and troublesome to a passive life in the Machine. The hero in the story however wishes to re-connect with this; to see the stars, and the "muscular" hills, as his ancestors once had. There are parallels again with our own lives - our over reliance on technology to tell us how to get to places or to actually go out and experience the world as it is. Or, to use my favourite phrase from the story, to marvel at "the imponderable bloom" of the natural world in front of us.

There is some excellent "double speak" in the story, and there are many echoes with Orwell's 1984.  Take this passage:
"I found out a way of my own."
The phrase conveyed no meaning to her, and he had to repeat it.
"A way of your own?" she whispered. "But that would be wrong."

Isn't that just like Winston Smith's rebellion against Big Brother? Incidentally, there is a "Central Committee" in Forster's story who are similarly all controlling and bureaucratic as in Orwell's book. Finally,. there are other themes in the book which reminded me of other Forster novels. Namely, the young protagonist who rebels against the overly-formal environment he is in and does something rash, impetuous, and impulsive - reacting from his heart rather than his head. The following passage for example could have come straight out of "Where Angels Fear To Tread", "what was the good of going out for mere curiosity...? The habit was vulgar and perhaps faintly improper: it was unproductive of ideas, and had no connection with the habits that really mattered"

Overall, this is a story well worth reading. There are many themes that are relevant to our times now, and if nothing else you can just admire Forster's imagination, flair, and skill in writing. Having spent far too long online this year, it was a delight to go off, read and re-read a book, and then discuss the ideas & language within it. Next time, you can join too. Start now by joining the group here:

Image from Feltrinelli Publishing House. Thanks Neon Neon for raising awareness