I never had E M Forster down as a reliable predictor of future inventions.
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But recently, as lockdown has forced us all into new patterns of (in)activity, each confined to our own Unit of Habitable Accommodation*, my mind has kept going back to one of Forster’s short stories I read as a teenager, decades ago.
The Machine Stops is – as far as I know – Forster’s only venture into science fiction (happy to be proved wrong, let me know, dear reader). As such I wouldn’t expect it to be particularly prescient – Forster was generally more interested in going back in time in his stories, or rather sideways, into various kinds of neo-pagan fantasy worlds.
But his imagining of a future where technology has advanced to such an extent that the natural world is no longer necessary, and where each person lives in their own single chamber underground, all their needs catered for by a central machine, and avoiding contact with other people, has some recognisable elements in it. Especially when you read that people communicate with each other across the world through a round plate they hold in their hands, that glows with ‘a faint, blue light’, and busy themselves with delivering 10-minute lectures from the comfort of their chair, on subjects like 'The Brisbane School of Art' and 'The Sea'. These lectures can be heard and seen by anyone who wants to tune in, from the comfort of their own private cell, anywhere in the world.
I don’t think I particularly rated The Machine Stops when I read it all those years ago. As a futuristic dystopia designed to make you think about the dangerous power of technology, it has nothing like the complexity of Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty Four. But now, looking at it again, I’m staggered. Ipads, internet, online learning, self-isolation, even the explosion in ‘friends’ created by social media… how did Forster KNOW? Even more extraordinary when you take into account that this story appeared as long ago as 1909, a whole 23 years before Brave New World.
*I found this phrase once in a surveyor’s report and have been unable to resist using it ever since.
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