E M Forster predicted lockdown and self-isolation over 100 years ago, discovers Griselda Heppel

I never had E M Forster down as a reliable predictor of future inventions.

He is remembered chiefly for novels in which nicely brought up English girls rebel against the class system that imprisons them, taking charge of their own lives and often causing havoc on the way.  When set against gorgeous backgrounds such as Tuscany, these stories make for ravishing films, most notably Merchant Ivory’s A Room With a View

Florence: a ravishing setting
Photo by 
Maegan White from Pexels

 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.

People have lost all muscular strength (no need for it) and despite having nothing to do, have no time for each other; they can – and frequently do – ‘self-isolate’ at the flick of a switch.  Concentration spans are no longer than 5 minutes and – almost laughably spooky – we’re told in an aside that the main character, Vashti, knows several thousand people. 

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

Impressive, eh.

*I found this phrase once in a surveyor’s report and have been unable to resist using it ever since.

Find out more about Griselda Heppel here:
and her (non-futuristic) children's books:
Ante's Inferno 
The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst


Sandra Horn said…
Thank you, Griselda! I thought I knew Forster pretty well, but I never would have imagined he'd write this. Prescient indeed!
Umberto Tosi said…
Wow! Eerie and precient indeed! I must read The Machine Stops! Thank you, Griselda.
Griselda Heppel said…
Thank you both! Aged 12 I had a brilliant, inspiring, fun and also very kind American English teacher who introduced that story to our class (alongside a chilling one called The Lottery, which I later discovered to be one of the most famous short stories of our time). She went back to the US after only 1 year but I was lucky to have her for that long.

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