The Machine Stops

The Machine Stops

"The Machine Stops" is a science fiction short story (of 12,000 words) by E. M. Forster. After initial publication in "The Oxford and Cambridge Review" (November 1909), the story was republished in Forster's "The Eternal Moment and Other Stories" in 1928. It was also included in "The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two" in 1973 after being voted one of the best novellas up to 1965.

=Plot summary= The story describes a world in which almost all humans have lost the ability to live on the surface of the Earth, and most of the human population lives below ground. Each individual lives in isolation in a standard 'cell', with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global Machine. Travel is permitted but unpopular and rarely necessary. The entire population communicates through a kind of instant messaging/video conferencing machine called the speaking apparatus, with which they conduct their only activity, the sharing of ideas and knowledge with each other. The two main characters, Vashti and her son Kuno, live on opposite sides of the world. Vashti is content with her life, which she spends producing and endlessly discussing secondhand 'ideas', as do most inhabitants of the world. Kuno, however, is a sensualist and a rebel. He is able to persuade a reluctant Vashti to endure the journey (and the resultant unwelcome personal interaction) to his cell. There, he tells Vashti of his disenchantment with the sanitized, mechanical world. He confides to her that he has visited the surface of the Earth without permission, and without the life support apparatus supposedly required to endure the toxic outer air, and that he saw other humans living outside the world of the Machine. He goes on to say that the Machine recaptured him, and that he has been threatened with 'Homelessness', that is, expulsion from the underground environment and presumed death. Vashti, however, dismisses her son's concerns as dangerous madness and returns to her part of the world.

As time passes, and Vashti continues the routine of her daily life, two important developments occur. First, the life support apparatus required to visit the outer world is abolished. Most humans welcome this development, as they are skeptical and fearful of first-hand experience and of those who desire it. Secondly, a kind of religion is re-established, in which the Machine is the object of worship. People forget that humans created the Machine, and treat it as a mystical entity whose needs supersede their own. Those who do not accept the deity of the Machine are viewed as 'unmechanical' and are threatened with Homelessness.

During this time, Kuno is transferred to a cell near Vashti's. He comes to believe that the Machine is breaking down, and he tells Vashti cryptically, "The Machine stops." For a time, Vashti continues with her life, but eventually defects begin to appear in the Machine. At first, humans accept the deteriorations as the whim of the Machine, to which they are now wholly subservient. The situation continues to deteriorate, as the knowledge of how to repair the Machine has been lost over the years, and finally the Machine apocalyptically collapses, bringing 'civilization' with it. Kuno comes to Vashti's ruined cell, however, and before they perish they realize that Man and his connection to the natural world are what truly matter, and that it will fall to the surface-dwellers who still exist to rebuild the human race and to prevent the mistake of the Machine from being repeated.


In the preface to his "Collected Short Stories" (1947), Forster wrote that "The Machine Stops" is a reaction to one of the earlier heavens of H. G. Wells" (although not all Wells' stories were optimistic about the future). Clearly, even in 1909 Forster was deeply concerned that Man was in danger of becoming unable to live without the technology that he created, and of forgetting that it was he who created it.

The story predicted several technological and social innovations, such as the 'cinemataphote' (television) and videoconferencing. Forster also sought to establish the value of direct experience, which is threatened by excessive involvement in virtual communities. This shows remarkable foresight, and the book describes many nuances of "online life" over 70 years before the Internet was even invented. The final destruction of the mechanical society of the Machine is not without hope, in that Kuno and Vashti recapture a part of the spirit of life and embrace each other for the first time, a mother and her son.


In 1952, the story was adapted and satirized by Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood as "Blobs!" in the first issue of Kurtzman's "Mad". The satire made no mention of Forster's story, yet it retained several key elements of the original, including the machine supplying all human needs, the failure of the machine that repairs and the complete breakdown of the machine in the closing panels.

A television adaptation, directed by Philip Saville, was shown in the UK on 6 October 1966 as part of the British science-fiction anthology TV series "Out of the Unknown".

Playwright Eric Coble's 2004 stage adaptation was broadcast on 16 November 2007 on WCPN 90.3 FM in Cleveland.cite web|url=|title=WCPN Program Highlights|accessdate = 2007-11-12]

Similar motifs in Polish science fiction include:
* "Sexmission," a 1984 film by Juliusz Machulski
* "Paradyzja," a 1984 novel by Janusz A. Zajdel

Both involve the leitmotif of an isolated artificial habitat with mass deception being perpetrated about the nature and habitability of the outer world. To some extent, these motifs could be read as veiled political metaphors of the "fake reality" in which the citizens of the Eastern Bloc have been forcefully kept by their governments during the Iron Curtain and Cold War era.

The 2008 film WALL-E includes several similar motifs, most notably a human race that has mutated into formless, helpless creatures, living on soft food and communicating entirely through projection screens. Their every need and comfort is provided by a "machine," in this case an interstellar cruise ship.

Citations in other media

Stephen Baxter's story "Glass Earth Inc.", which refers explicitly to "The Machine Stops", is included in the Book "Phase Space".

The song "The Machine Stops" by the band Level 42 not only shares the same title with the story but also has lyrics that echo Kuno's thoughts. The song 'Blood Machine' by Chad Vangaalen shares similar themes.

Many of the story's themes, such as humans establishing a machine-dictated underground society, are shared with the 1971 film THX-1138 directed by George Lucas.


External links

* [ "The Machine Stops" (full text)]
* [ Full text semantic version]
* [ Another online text]
* [ IMDb: "Out of This World": "The Machine Stops"]
* [ Listen to an audio recording of the story] from Librivox

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