Science as Nightmare: "The Machine Stops" by E.M. Forster

By Caporaletti, Silvana | Utopian Studies, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Science as Nightmare: "The Machine Stops" by E.M. Forster


Caporaletti, Silvana, Utopian Studies


NO MATTER HOW EXALTED its inventiveness, utopian literature, if it is to explicate the cognitive function that is inherent in the genre, can never be pure fantasy: it is inescapably both fictio and mimesis, poised in uneasy balance on the edge between invention and reality.(1) Because of its dual nature, the lie that the utopian text utters is then, in a way, a "true" lie. The imaginative, ideal worlds that it constructs are firmly grounded in concrete reality, being essentially isomorphic projections of those developmental tendencies that, though latent, the authors are able to perceive in the world around them. The relation between utopian literature and reality is therefore particularly problematic. By distorting and exaggerating human situations, the utopian text acts as a criticism of life, and by offering a possible, alternative model of social organization, whether positive or negative, it also acts as an implicit or explicit proposal of a substitutive reorganization. Its message is strictly related to the socio-cultural context which generates it, but seldom remains confined to it. The critical interpretation of human life that it offers and the hope in a timely, positive change that it transmits can speak to very different people in very different times.

The relation of the utopian text to reality can vary, indeed, with time, because human history and science may develop in directions that narrow the gap between imagination and reality, attenuating the fictional aspect of the text and accentuating the mimetic one, in a never ending dialectical process that gives new vigor to the text and updates it, redefining its finality and reinforcing its impact on present reality. This indeed is the case of "The Machine Stops," a rather long short story published by E.M. Forster in 1909. "The Machine Stops" is the first example of twentieth century dystopian literature and the prototypical mechanical beehive story that brings together most of the relevant motifs later developed by twentieth century dystopian authors.(2) The significance of this text seems to have increased with time, yet it has received less attention than it deserves by the major scholars of utopian literature and S/F.(3) To analyze it in order to bring out its thematic implications and show how relevant the issues that it debates are still to us, is the main aim of the following discussion.

In "The Machine Stops" Forster depicts an imaginary "reality" that bears the disquieting aspect of a world in which fiction has little by little substituted reality until it has replaced it almost completely. In the world of the Machine human beings live isolated in the confined and protective space of small subterranean rooms, refusing all contact with the external world because they prefer the simulation of experience to experience itself. Little more than simulacra themselves, they are fulfilled in a pseudoreality made up of voices, sounds and evanescent images, abstract sensations that can be evoked by pressing a few buttons. Feeble and colorless, unaware of their unnatural condition because completely forgetful of their true human dimension, Forster's creatures move in a hypertechnological world which electronic devices and the advent of virtual reality make today alarmingly possible. The fictional reality that Forster depicts does not appear incredible nor absurd, not only because it is validated by the internal coherence of the narrative, but also because it is the projection of scientific trends which were already at work in his time. Grounded in the fast and exalting progress of science and technology, the strange world of the Machine poses itself as the ultimate development of real scientific premises: notwithstanding its evident diversity, it stems from the same roots as the concrete, familiar world of the reader and is, therefore, hyperbole rather than paradox.

The access to the world of the Machine is direct, unmediated by a narrator: an omniscient impersonal voice, external to the story, authoritatively relates events and situations to the reader.

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