Forster, E M

Tagged: Author

(1879-1970) UK author, perhaps best known for the last two novels published in his lifetime, Howards End (1910) and A Passage to India (1924). The Celestial Omnibus, and Other Stories (coll 1911) assembles several fantasies of interest, usually driven by the presence of deities like Pan or Hermes, fatally etiolated after the Edwardian fashion; his importance to sf lies wholly in his short story "The Machine Stops" (November 1909 The Oxford and Cambridge Review), collected in The Eternal Moment and Other Stories (coll 1928) with some further fantasies. Both books were assembled as Collected Short Stories (omni 1947; vt Collected Tales 1974); The Machine Stops (coll 2011) assembles the title story and some shorter tales.

Cast in the form of a warning look at a moderately distant future, rather in the mode of H G Wells's The Time Machine (1895), "The Machine Stops" directly attacks, as many critics noted and as Forster himself acknowledged, the rational World State that Wells had promulgated four years earlier in A Modern Utopia (1905). The hivelike Underground society Forster envisions, in the first part of his long tale, essentially confines each of its denizens in "a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee", where all material wants are met by remote control, ultimately at the behest of an impersonal Central Committee: an instantaneous worldwide Communications net provides all the intercourse anyone needs; a precursor of Muzak is piped into every cell; all raw passions and "freedom" and interpersonal relations have become empty terms, exhausted of any content. In the second part of the tale, a young rebel escapes this Pocket Universe and reaches the surface of the planet, but experiences no Conceptual Breakthrough there, for the air is poisonous to him – Evolution having already begun to transform him into the kind of brain-heavy monstrosity Wells envisioned in "The Man of the Year Million" (6 November 1893 Pall Mall Gazette) and The First Men in the Moon (1901). In the third part, the machine creaks to a stop from accumulated Entropy, the depersonalized ciphers underground perish, while above, on the surface, a few genuine humans survive. In any study of the relation of Dystopia to Utopia, the story is of vital interest. [JC]

see also: Automation; Cities; History of SF; Leisure; Technology; Virtual Reality.

Edward Morgan Forster

born London: 1 January 1879

died Coventry, Warwickshire: 7 June 1970

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