EM Forster

The Prescience of E. M. Forster

Born into the middle class of late Victorian England in 1879, E. M. (Edward Morgan) Forster grew up as the telegraph, telephone, gramophone, radio, and autocar were just emerging to transform human affairs. Forster found early success as a novelist, writer of short stories, and literary critic. In particular, three of his seven novels would provide lasting fame: A Room With a View, A Passage to India, and Howard’s End. They mostly depicted strained, intimate, and class-crossed relations of bourgeois, heterosexual Brits searching for happiness in sundry provinces and generally failing to find it.

Forster himself seems also to have come up short in the happiness department, partly due to a timid temperament and partly due to the moralism of his post-Victorian times. By the time his life gave way in 1970, Forster had witnessed the coming of two world wars, the atomic age, television, jet aircraft, satellites, the moon landing, digital computers, and hints of the Internet. Notably, after the age of 45 he published no more novels, instead writing occasional stories, a memoir, political commentary, and literary criticism. When asked in a 1958 BBC interview why he stopped writing novels, he replied, “the social aspect of the world changed so very much. I’d been accustomed to write about the old vanished world with its homes and its family life and its comparative peace. All of that went. And though I can think about it, I cannot put it into fiction form.” The brutalities, vanities, and bonfires of the 20th century seem to have knocked the literary stuffing out of him.

But there was another, more intimate, source of his literary reluctance. Straightaway upon Forster’s demise, Christopher Isherwood took it upon himself to package some of that stuffing, publishing Forster’s self-suppressed gay novel Maurice in 1971. Drafted in 1913 and 1914, it had been Forster’s first, and one that he kept reworking throughout the rest of his life in expectation of a more permissive age when a publisher might have the temerity to put it out.

As Forster had feared, critics invidiously compared Maurice to his other works, one complaining that it “queered the lens” through which they would forevermore be viewed. It truly did, tainting Forster’s reputation until queer studies emerged to rehabilitate it. Despite all the fantastical changes in the world Forster had witnessed, sadly the advent of gay pride wasn’t among them.

By the time those changes came to pass, Forster had already passed stern judgment on them. Not in his novels of Edwardian mores and marriages, but early on, in a short novella unlike any other fiction he would go on to write. Published in 1909, The Machine Stops is set far in the technological future, not the recent past. Perhaps it was prompted by societal changes Forster observed with distaste, ones he attributed to the ethos of modernity in the machine age. Projecting his era’s bourgeois aspirations to their logical conclusions, Forster explained, “Humanity, in its desire for comfort, had over-reached itself. It had exploited the riches of nature too far. Quietly and complacently, it was sinking into decadence, and progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine.” The machine of which he speaks in upper case is an AI agglomeration of futuristic technologies, an irresistible, omnipresent Internet of Things snugly cocooning a devitalized Homo sapiens deep underground.

Progress is a word no longer in common parlance (even as “progressive” is having a renaissance) that today lives on as “innovation,” gathering speed, complexity, and remoteness from the natural world as it arcs toward an all-enveloping future that Forster may have seen more clearly than most of us alive today—a dystopian future that would fully divorce humanity from nature.

Make of its sometimes dowdy diction as you will, you cannot deny that The Machine Stops is terribly prescient. Unlike H. G. Wells’s techno-centric tales of the same vintage, Forster’s 1909 allegory in three acts doesn’t stimulate wonderment of things to come, it depicts them menacing both humanity and nature. Forster laid out a future dystopia not unlike the one now gathering, replete with online addiction, synthetic foods, prophylactic eugenics, and more.

Forster’s post-Victorian world was creeping him out. Despite the bounty of consumer goods that industrialization was spewing forth, its physical and managerial infrastructure was stifling body, mind, and spirit, and he didn’t like where humanity seemed to be heading. Civilization seemed, as Mark Twain remarked around then, “a limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities” that emptied people of spirit as it cluttered their lives.

Projecting present stuff and nonsense into a coming age is a tricky business that not even professional futurists are good at, but Forster nailed it into the ground. And while we aren’t quite the pale, limp, solitary denizens of subterranean chambers his story describes, humanity seems to be on that anemic path. Forster indicates no reason why the entire population was herded into rabbit warrens in that far future beyond bad industrial air. Long ago, human activity had sufficiently poisoned the atmosphere to force everyone underground to degenerate in air-conditioned comfort.

His Machine provides all—shelter in personal pods furnished with ventilation, lighting, and tubes for food and medicine dispensed by unseen agents under central command. There are tablets for writing, speakers for listening, and screens for reading and blurry videophonic fellowship. He notes, “The Machine did not transmit nuances of expression. It only gave a general idea of people—an idea that was good enough for all practical purposes.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

* * *

For hundreds of years, humanity has been cocooned in crippling isolation, walled off from the kind or rough touch of a fellow being. The Machine predetermines mating, birthing babies who are then withheld from any human tenderness. To assure a uniformly flaccid product, it sends infants who exhibit more than the prescribed degree of muscle tone to be euthanized, and scatters the rest to nurseries, where birth parents have no role in raising them. Every child is schooled in liberal arts, but in no useful arts. There is no need for practical or empirical pursuits, praise the Machine.

Minding the Machine are bureaucrats, as remote and unobservable as our own elites, plying their stultifying trade. The Committee of the Mending Apparatus (that reported to an anonymous Soviet-style Central Committee) responds to complaints by purring that proper steps are being taken. Athwart the Machine sits some sort of authoritarian world government that Forster scarcely limns.

Amid this backdrop, the first of the two characters we meet is Vashti, physically described as “a swaddled lump of flesh—a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus.” She is of the thinking class, whose members devote their energies to lectures rehashing or disputing texts discussing earlier texts, ad infinitum. For them, intellectual activity has devolved to literary criticism. The operant rules of rhetoric discourage novel explanations, as one esteemed scholar implored: “Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element—direct observation.” That may sound arch, but consider how far from direct experience most of what passes for news today is.

EM Forster

Vashti boasts of having a hundred “friends” worldwide, essentially a webinar audience to whom she lectures. Her regurgitated ideas and avoidance of reality presage the ideological echo chambers to which the Internet so quickly devolved, in reality managed by commercial entities such as Facebook and Twitter whose inner workings are as opaque as the fictional Machine’s.

In contrast to Vashti’s passive pedantry, her wayward and far-off son Kuno is a rebel, a prototypical Winston Smith, yearning to break out of the hermetic strictures he feels are choking him. Unlike Winston, he can’t be persuaded that the Machine is good for him or anybody else. And so, he tells his mother, he went up to the surface for a little look-see. Having scouted out an ancient ventilation shaft left over from building the Machine’s infrastructure, he ascended its rusty ladder to its stopper. Urgently, he literally leapt into the abyss and managed to grasp its valve handle. Vashti is appalled.

As he hangs in blackness, the stopper twists open. He and it are exhaled into the troposphere by pressure from below. The first thing he notices, lying stunned “in a grass-grown hollow that was edged with fern,” is how raw and searing the outside air is. What is wrong with the air isn’t explained, but without the artificial air Kuno becomes agitated and panicky. All afternoon he lies in his grassy hollow, sipping the air issuing from the shaft, and at last venturing up the slope in fading light to glimpse the “low, colorless hills” of Wessex through a mist “the colour of pearl.” “But to me,” he tells a scowling Vashti, “they were living and the turf that covered them was a skin, under which their muscles rippled, and I felt that those hills had called with incalculable force to men in the past, and that men had loved them.” Consider that as you distractedly gaze at your monitor’s scenic wallpaper.

As he steels himself to go exploring, large white (bionic?) worms—part of the Machine’s “mending apparatus”—emerge from the airshaft and coil about his limbs to drag him back down the tunnel. As he struggles, he sees a woman rushing to free him, who too becomes “entangled by the worms, and, luckier than I, was killed by one of them piercing her throat.” The surface is inhabited by hominids, he tells Vashti, who rudely dismisses the possibility of sentient life on Earth. Coldly, she tells her son he is doomed and departs for her pod to resume her ethereal intellectual pastimes, hoping to avoid body contact along her way.

Of course it doesn’t go well. As the end nears, Kuno reaches out to Vashti, who had utterly forsaken him, crying, “The Machine is stopping, I know it, I know the signs.” She mocks him and breaks off once again. But the mending apparatus is in poor repair, and after a series of nervous tics and minor malfunctions, the Machine undergoes a physical meltdown. Without light, communications, and conditioned air, the underworld becomes dark, fetid, and—when the screams and moans of the dying finally ebb—silent, an inferno devoid of flames. A firmly committed humanist and socialist, Forster wished to transform people’s hearts, not their politics, and so used Vashti’s devotion to the Machine to demonstrate how acolytes of any system fall into a submissive trance, no matter how smart or free they believe themselves to be. And that seems to be our own lot with respect both to technology and politics, the one walling us off from fellowship and nature and the other from exercising power.

Vashti’s willing isolation can be seen as an allegory of Forster’s own self-confinement as a gay man. As a teenager, traumatized by seeing Oscar Wilde convicted of unnatural acts and consigned to hard labor, Forster closeted his sexuality for the rest of his natural life, writing parts of himself into social situations he felt alienated from. He chronicled those normal lives until middle age, when that “vanished world” no longer held any interest for him. Along the way, like Kuno, he furtively chased physicality; he by rowing upon the River Cam and visiting men in their chambers or their hotel rooms, Kuno by calisthenics and climbing. Unlike Kuno, Forster never surfaced.

* * *

To express his sorrow at society’s alienations of affection in the machine age and lost connections to nature, Forster burrowed a century into the future to imagine consequences of “progress,” presaging the Internet, videoconferencing, digital documents, robots, scientific eugenics, and artificial intelligence, an astounding feat of prophecy for a bookish Edwardian romantic. He even anticipated computer hacking, hinting at it near the end, when glitches people were complaining about weren’t getting fixed: “‘Some one is meddling with the Machine—’ they began. ‘Some one is trying to make himself king, to reintroduce the personal element.’”

They worried the Machine could be subverted by a power-hungry individual. The possibility of organized resistance against The Machine was unthinkable to them. But there well could have been such a movement, had Kuno tried to enlist confederates. Resistance to dehumanization today comes in many forms, from whistleblowers and leakers to social movements and underground collectives such as Anonymous. At the same time, meddlers galore infiltrate our machines to exploit their and our vulnerabilities. In the top-down world that Forster imagined, such anarchy would be unthinkable. In that sense, he got it wrong, but oh so much of what The Machine Stops lays out remains chillingly prescient.

We are just starting to appreciate how rickety and subject to capricious manipulation by unseen forces our information infrastructure has become. Already, we are intensively surveilled to profile and algorithmically condition us to accept constraints to our lives, mentalities, and choices. Absent of pushback, like Forster’s characters, we will find ourselves cocooned in virtual worlds in which human agency is illusory.

We are already well on our way. Do you object? If so, what will you do? Are you a Vashti or a Kuno?

Excerpts of The Machine Stops appear here.