I’m having to acknowledge nowadays that I’m a very impressionable reader, easily influenced and seduced away from my reading plans by an interesting piece or a blog, a recommended book or the discovery of a new author. This read is a case in point – after reading this fascinating piece on Interesting Literature I went off in search of any of the titles mentioned and came across a Penguin Mini Modern Classic of the Forster. I was intrigued by the idea of early dystopian writing (I have several examples already on Mount TBR), and this sounded particularly good.

machine

The slim volume contains two stories, the title one and another called “The Celestial Omnibus”. “The Machine Stops” opens with a woman called Vashti ensconced in her living cell, communicating with her son Kuno on the other side of the world via what can only be described as a primitive kind of telescreen or Skype. As the story develops, it transpires that human beings are living underground; all communications, sensations, bathing, dressing, eating, socializing, learning – in fact, literally everything – is provided by, and governed by, The Machine. This is a man-made conceit which has gradually taken over the running of human life, leaving the overground uninhabited and the humans are no long able to breathe the real air and survive outside. Any visits to the upper world, to travel via airship to really visit another person, require a respirator.

But this is not quite the whole truth. Kuno has conceived of an urge to see the stars in the sky. First he had to develop his fitness for some time – for the humans are more like slugs nowadays, adapted to a sedentary life: “… in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh – a woman about five feet high, with a face as white as fungus.” Once he has developed some physical strength, Kuno explores and finds a hidden way outside – will he survive, how will this affect him, and will he be declared ‘homeless’? (in effect, put out on the surface to die).

This short story, published in 1928, is really quite stunning. The concepts are clever and very prescient, and I wondered how Forster could have foreseen our current dependence on technology, and replacement of the real experience with the facsimile. As he describes Vashti’s existence,

“There were buttons and switches everywhere – buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.”

As this is a dystopian world, obviously things will go wrong but I’m not going to give away the plot. I would simply urge you to read this story if you have any interest at all in this type of fiction!

forster

As for “The Celestial Omnibus”, this is an affecting little tale about a young Victorian boy who discovers that a very unusual bus service runs from an alley near his house. The signpost is labelled “Heaven” and was apparently put there by Shelley! The boy’s parents mock him, in particular his cruel father, but Mr Bons, a family friend, humours him. However, when Bons sets off to take the bus with the boy he gets a lot more than he bargains for.

This little gem was just as affecting as the first story, although very different. It seemed to me to be about the gulf between adults and children; the former are closed-minded and cannot deal with anything out of the normal; whereas children, with their still uncorrupted and undeveloped minds, are much more accepting of the unusual.

I have to confess that I think this is the first Forster I’ve ever finished and the stories were very enjoyable. Highly impressed!

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