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Literature / The Machine Stops

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The Machine Stops is a Science Fiction novella by E. M. Forster. It deals with two main characters (a woman, Vashti, and her son, Kuno) who, like (almost?) everyone else, live inside individual rooms ("cells") under the Earth's surface (deemed hostile and uninhabitable), while all their needs are attended to by an unimaginably complex mechanism called the Machine.

Read it online here or listen to an audiobook here.


This work contains examples of:

  • Beneath the Earth: Every city is an Underground City in the Machine's world (the air on the surface is poisonous).
  • Born in the Wrong Century: Kuno is rebellious and, thanks to exercise, noticeably muscular. Both things are frowned upon by the Machine; a predisposition for the latter is grounds for preemptive infanticide.
  • Earth That Used to Be Better: The surface of the Earth is cold and air is scarce and poisonous; only some plants can survive there. Or at least that's what the Machine wants people to believe.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: Civilization collapses after the Machine stops working, killing pretty much everyone except the surface dwellers.
  • Freak Out: People run from their cells or die of terror as soon as they realize the hum of the Machine has stopped.
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  • Ludd Was Right: Arguably. The story criticizes the compulsory mediation of human relationships by machines rather than the use of mechanical tools.
  • Machine Worship: This gets more explicit as the plot advances, as Vashti and the human population go from admiring the machine to forming a religion out of it.
  • Older Than Television: The story was originally published in 1909!
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: Stated and then refuted In-Universe. The humans under the Machine reject religion and belief in gods, yet the Book of the Machine is venerated.
  • Platonic Cave: Down to an individual training himself to leave, leaving, then coming back to tell others there is a world out there, and being ultimately rejected.
  • Population Control: The Machine grants or denies permissions for both reproduction and euthanasia in order to keep the population stable.
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  • Rebellious Spirit: Kuno likes physical contact, speaks against the Machine and wants to see what's outside his cell, all of which is immoral and disgusting in his cultural background.
  • Spoiler Title: Once the Machine is explained, it's pretty clear that it has to stop at some point.
  • Title Drop: Kuno tells his mother that the Machine does indeed stop, though she doesn't believe it at first.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: In return for a comfortable existence, the Machine has been granted unlimited power over humans, and almost nobody seems inclined to protest.
  • Zeerust: Mostly averted. Though the author's vision of the fully-automated home is based on pushing buttons and turning knobs, the gadgets themselves are mentioned in the most general terms. Thus also not Steampunk.


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