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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's set in a future in which seemingly everybody lives inside individual rooms named "cells", under the Earth's surface, which is deemed hostile and uninhabitable. All their needs are attended to by an unimaginably complex mechanism called the Machine. The plot kicks off when a woman named Vashti gets a request from her adult son Kuno to physically visit him in his room despite its location being on the other side of the planet. Kuno's reason for his request is that he has made a discovery that he's reluctant to speak about over the Machine's communications system.

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.
  • In the Future, Humans Will Be One Race: Thanks to many centuries of cheap and easy global air travel, the races have long since blended. Unusually for a work written before World War I, this is presented neutrally, as neither good nor bad.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Terminally Dependent Society: As the Machine breaks down, it's clear that the population lacks the knowledge of how to repair it, dooming their whole society.
  • 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.