OMG! as Forster would not have said
May 30, 2020 5:56 AM   Subscribe

BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz reads E.M. Forster's 1909 novella The Machine Stops. "The Machine Stops is not simply prescient; it is a jaw-droppingly, gob-smackingly, breath-takingly accurate literary description of lockdown life in 2020. [...] It's not lost on me that you are reading this on the internet on a man-made device over which we just about still believe we have mastery."

'The Machine Stops' remains a popular subject for adaptation; a quick search brings up readings, films, and even a trailer for an operatic production.
posted by Major Clanger (22 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
 
I first read The Machine Stops about 10 years ago and was blown away by how prescient some of his ideas were:

People connected to each other only by a vast machine network and video displays, looking for new ideas to share while never actually seeking personal experiences themselves.

It's social media described decades before television was invented.
posted by justkevin at 6:13 AM on May 30, 2020 [8 favorites]


I've just finished reading the original short story, and I'm stunned that I've never read this before. I guess I had seen so many references, and read so many derivative works, that I thought I had. This is amazing.
posted by Mogur at 6:40 AM on May 30, 2020


I'm amazed that the prediction that people would use cheap and easy communication systems to chat with each other was made so early... and then the idea was forgotten until it really happened.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 6:59 AM on May 30, 2020 [1 favorite]


Read it in middle school. Remember it still, but hadn't realised it was so old.
posted by scruss at 8:44 AM on May 30, 2020


Wait, we're in The Machine Stops future? I had been hoping for the Star Maker future.
posted by fairmettle at 9:23 AM on May 30, 2020 [4 favorites]


I'm amazed that the prediction that people would use cheap and easy communication systems to chat with each other was made so early... and then the idea was forgotten until it really happened.

Who says it was forgotten? These ideas continued to show up in SF after this point, and those SF stories impacted the development of the actual technology later on.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:54 AM on May 30, 2020 [3 favorites]


showbiz_liz, which stories are you thinking of?
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 11:03 AM on May 30, 2020


Taught this in the late 90s, and students didn't understand why. I wonder if any of them ever think of it now.
posted by MonkeyToes at 11:58 AM on May 30, 2020 [4 favorites]


I often refer The Internet as The Machine. It's a test, to find out if you've read this novella.
posted by Rash at 12:57 PM on May 30, 2020 [1 favorite]


fairmettle: We still might be. Check back in a billion years.
posted by zompist at 1:43 PM on May 30, 2020 [3 favorites]


I don’t know why, but until a few minutes ago I thought EM Forster was a woman.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:54 PM on May 30, 2020 [2 favorites]


I have no idea what actual influence this story had, but looking at its ISFDB entry, it's conceivable that it influenced similar stories from a relatively early date. Given its original venue, probably very few people read it until it was collected in 1928 and 1947, but it was selected for numerous SF anthologies from 1950 on, including a couple that seem to have been reprinted many times. Most stories mentioned in the SFE entry for Internet occur after that point, though Murray Leinster's "A Logic Named Joe" (1946) seems like a notable exception.
posted by Wobbuffet at 2:48 PM on May 30, 2020 [1 favorite]


I remember it from the 70s Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

Some readers may know from in the Mad version, "Blobs"— from the very first issue, Oct 1952.
posted by zompist at 3:40 PM on May 30, 2020 [1 favorite]


I had been hoping for the Star Maker future.

fairmettle, I fear we're encroaching on Last and First Men territory.
posted by doctornemo at 3:50 PM on May 30, 2020 [4 favorites]


Very good novella.

Jim Groom got me thinking about using it in my classes.
posted by doctornemo at 3:50 PM on May 30, 2020


The BBC's 1966 television rendition, on the series Out of the Unknown, is available at Archive.org.

There's also an excellent BBC radio drama adaptation at Archive.org that has much better pictures.
posted by sonascope at 7:16 AM on May 31, 2020 [1 favorite]


I first came across The Machine Stops several years ago, as part of a course on fiction writing. It's not Merchant Ivory, but like all Forster's work, it has Romantic overtones, and it's a little unusual for science fiction in that it's past-oriented rather than future-oriented. The article makes a really good point contrasting it with the Futurist Manifesto.

For another weirdly prescient sci-fi novel by an author we don't think of as sci-fi, try The Poison Belt, by Arthur Conan Doyle. Professor Challenger realizes that a poisonous miasma is about to engulf the Earth; he and his buddies self-quarantine in a hermetically sealed room with lots of oxygen. Hijinks ensue.
posted by basalganglia at 7:40 AM on May 31, 2020


showbiz_liz, which stories are you thinking of?

Not showbiz_liz, but my favorite under-the-radar prediction of 21st century communications was always Bradbury's (characteristically dyspeptic) "The Murderer."
posted by atoxyl at 11:56 AM on May 31, 2020 [1 favorite]


Also not showbiz_liz, but Kevin O'Donnell's ORA:CLE was pretty prescient for a novel from 1984: global climate change, self isolation, and the internet, (although maybe not the alien overlords.)

In retrospect, it could easily have been influenced/inspired by The Machine Stops.
posted by zueod at 9:23 PM on May 31, 2020


the prediction that people would use cheap and easy communication systems to chat with each other was made so early... and then the idea was forgotten until it really happened.


but
phones were invented before the story, not after


it's also a godawful story of course. never know it was Forster if you hadn't been told.
posted by queenofbithynia at 11:06 PM on May 31, 2020 [1 favorite]


Downloaded for later digestion, thanks. Always a fan of Forster (and sci fi) my wife and I have just finished reading Howards End as part of our lockdown-literary-hour-read-to-each-other sessions.
posted by Myeral at 4:09 AM on June 2, 2020


Clarke's _The City and the Stars_ (1956) has a fair amount about cheap and easy communication, but I don't remember enough detail to do the subject justice.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 10:56 AM on June 7, 2020


« Older Pelada   |   State Capacity Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments