51 pages 1 hour read

E. M. Forster

The Machine Stops

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1909

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Machine Stops”

Considered one of the best early examples of science fiction, E. M. Forster’s short story, “The Machine Stops,” first published in 1909, is notable for predicting several modern technologies decades before they became practical, including the Internet and instant messaging.

“Part One: The Airship” begins in “a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee” (1). A small, pale woman named Vashti is listening to music and becomes annoyed when a bell rings—she knows thousands of people and is interrupted often. Her chair, which “like the music, was worked by machinery” (1), takes her to the other side of the room to answer the call. She is happy to hear from her son Kuno but is impatient because he is slow to respond and she has to give a lecture in five minutes about “Music during the Australian Period” (1). Kuno’s face appears; he wants to speak to his mother in person instead of through the Machine. Kuno urges her to take the airship—a two-day journey to see him on the other side of the world—but Vashti does not want to travel.

Vashti complains to her son that she hates the airship: “I dislike seeing the horrible brown earth, and the sea, and the stars when it is dark. I get no ideas in an airship” (2). Kuno is inspired in the airship, for that is where he notices the patterns of the stars and discovers the constellation Orion.. Vashti is confused, and Kuno admits that he wants to go to the earth’s surface and see the stars again. She reminds her son that although it is permitted to go to the surface, there is nothing to see but “dust and mud, no life remains on it, and you would need a respirator, or the cold of the outer air would kill you. One dies immediately in the outer air” (3). Vashti adds that “[i]t is contrary to the spirit of the age” (3). Kuno abruptly ends the conversation.

Vashti is momentarily sad, but then looks around her room. Everything is operated by different buttons that call forth music, clothing, food, baths, and communications with her thousands of friends: “The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world” (4). Vashti turns off the isolation button and voices flood in. She talks to her friends for a moment and then switches the settings to give her 10-minute lecture. All lectures, which mostly concern minute eras in art and history, are given remotely through the Machine. The lecture goes well, and she listens to another lecture about the ocean from someone who went to the surface to see it. Alone in her room, she chats with friends, presses buttons to eat and bathe, and finally to call up her bed.

Vashti thinks about her day and her conversation with Kuno. She picks up a book on her bedside table, taking it “reverently in her hands” (4). The Book is the instruction manual for operating the Machine from her room. She kisses the spine three times, murmuring, “O Machine! O Machine!” (5). Vashti decides she does not have time to visit her son and goes to sleep. In the morning, she wakes up and contacts her son, but Kuno refuses to speak to her unless she visits. Anxiously, she presses the button that opens the door of her room to the tunnel outside. The travel system, which involves calling a car to fly her to the airship, is now rarely used—not since “those funny old days, when men went for a change of air instead of changing the air in their rooms!” (5).

In a panic, Vashti pushes the button to close the door and reiterates to her son that she cannot visit, adding that she is ill. Suddenly, an arm of the Machine descends from the ceiling, holding her still and checking her temperature and vital signs. Vashti understands that Kuno must have contacted her doctor. The Machine shoots medication into her mouth and returns to the ceiling. Vashti asks Kuno why he cannot visit her. Cryptically, he responds, “Because I cannot leave this place. […] Because, any moment, something tremendous may happen” (6). He tells her that he has not gone to the surface but refuses to say any more until she visits. Vashti reflects on the parenting process; the manual states that parental duties “cease at the moment of birth” (6). Babies are immediately taken to public nurseries where parents may visit. Although she gave birth to several children, “there was something special about Kuno” (6). She realizes she will have to take the trip.

Steeling herself, Vashti holds her Book and calls a car. She takes a seat in the car which is empty except for one fellow traveler—the first person she has seen in months outside of the Machine’s communication system. People rarely travel because the earth is the same everywhere. In this time of the Machine, “men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul” (6). The airship system moves smoothly, as scientists have either managed to create machinery that is unaffected by weather and natural disasters or have stopped those disasters altogether. Vashti is uncomfortable with her new surroundings and the presence of other people. A passenger drops his Book and is at a loss for how to retrieve it; if this happened in his room, the Machine would have lifted it up for him. The man leaves his Book and boards the airship.

Nervously, Vashti notices that “the arrangements were old-fashioned and rough” (7). There is a live attendant, and Vashti becomes silently outraged that the woman did not give her the best cabin. Vashti comforts herself by holding her Book, watching through the window as the dropped Book on the platform is swept up by the Machine. As the airship takes off, Vashti sees the Sumatran coast dotted with lighthouses still lit for no one. The attendant lowers the blinds and turns on the artificial light within the cabin. Vashti is dismayed to see a gap in the blinds through which she can see a single star. When the sun rises, the foreign light wakes her up. Although scientists managed to speed up the earth’s rotation in order to make the night longer and “defeat the sun” (8), it was quickly discovered that this was dangerous, and the research subject became punishable by Homelessness. This attempt to control the sun marked the end of man’s connection and curiosity with the outside world. Therefore, sunlight irritates Vashti.

Vashti calls for the attendant, who offers to switch Vashti’s cabin. Vashti notes that although “people were almost exactly alike all over the world” (8), the attendant is different, perhaps because her job requires her to communicate face-to-face so often. Vashti loses her balance and the attendant reaches out to stop her from falling. Vashti is horrified and yells at the woman who apologizes, baffled. In the age of the Machine, “people never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete” (9). The attendant lifts the blinds and shows Vashti the Himalayan mountains, explaining that the mountain range was “once called the Roof of the World” (9) because people believed that only gods could live so high up. Vashti scoffs at the name and tells the attendant to close the blinds because “these mountains give me no ideas” (9). They both praise the machine and Vashti looks around. Most of the other passengers are young men who were raised in public nurseries and are being sent to their new homes on the other side of the world. She glances out the window again, this time at Greece, reiterating to herself, “No ideas here” (10) and closes the blinds.

In "Part Two: The Mending Apparatus," Vashti arrives at Kuno’s room, which looks just like hers. They do not touch. She complains about the trip and insists she can only stay for a few moments. Kuno tells his mother that the Central Committee has threatened him with Homelessness—a death sentence in which a person is left to die in the outside air. Kuno describes his trip to the surface, which he made illegally without asking for a permit. She is shocked that he would do such a thing, and he accuses her of worshiping the Machine. Vashti balks, “I worship nothing! […] I am most advanced!” (11). Kuno is stronger than most humans, and strength is a detriment in their sedentary society. Babies born too strong are euthanized because they would be unhappy without exercise. Kuno points out that their virtual-based lives have caused them to lose awareness of spatiality.

When he made his illegal trip, Kuno tells Vashti, he had no sense of how far his room was from the surface, so he walked along the rail platform and slowly began to regain an idea of distance. He declares, “Man is the measure” (12), meaning that the human body is the basis for understanding spatial relationships. He realized, Kuno continues, that, because the Machine and underground living system were built when people still breathed outside air, there must still be ventilation systems that reach the surface. Looking for these systems, Kuno walked through the railway tunnels, imagining the voices of the long-dead workmen who built them. He tells his mother that generations of voices urged him on, which reminds Vashti that her son’s recent application to become a father has been denied.

Kuno recalls that he found a hole where the tiles were loose, and he started to pull them down until he became tired, returned to his room, and called his mother. Vashti becomes upset, accusing, “You are throwing civilization away” (12-13). Kuno goes on, describing how he exercised to build up his strength and muscles. Finally, he requested a respirator and made his second journey. This time, he found the tiles easier to remove. He climbed through the hole and found a ladder, which he ascended, noting the silence. He could no longer hear the ever-present hum of the Machine. Still, Kuno continued to hear the voices of the dead in his mind, and then reached the seal covering the shaft from the outside world. He had to leap, risking his life to reach it.

Vashti responds with worry and shame. She knows her son’s actions will lead to his death because “there was not room for such a person in the world” (14).

Kuno continues: He managed to open the seal, and the air from the underground tunnel system blasted forcefully. He landed in the sun, bleeding, his respirator lost. Then he noticed that his respirator was floating, lifted by a column of air, so he breathed from the opening. He was in a hollow indentation in the earth that slowly filled with a mixture of Machine air and surface air, and he was happy, determined to climb up.

Kuno pauses his story suddenly, assuming Vashti does not want to hear more, but she urges him to continue. He talks about the hills and the land that used to be populated with life, hills that “commune with humanity in dreams” (15). Desperately, he tells his mother that the Machine is killing humanity, having taken away their relationship to the world and each other. Kuno asserts that the Machine would gladly let humans die out if it did not need them.

Kuno stops again, but Vashti insists that he explain how he made it back to his room. Kuno tells her that his respirator finally fell back to the ground around sunset. The air flowing from the underground tunnel diminished and then stopped and he realized that the Machine’s Mending Apparatus had discovered the hole and would be coming for him. Determined to run, Kuno looked for his respirator, but it was gone. Then, the Mending Apparatus, which Kuno describes as “a long white worm” (17) emerged from the tunnel. He fought as it grabbed him, but he hit his head and passed out. He woke up in his room alone.

Vashti moves to leave, murmuring, “It will end in Homelessness” (17). Kuno admits that he wishes they would make him Homeless. He reminds Vashti of those who have been made Homeless and of the bones that remain as warnings. Immediately before the Mending Apparatus caught him, he saw a woman die when the worm stabbed her in the throat. Vashti leaves.

“Part Three: The Homeless” takes place years later. The Machine has gotten rid of the respirators, making travel to the outside no longer possible. Most denizens accept this limitation because “advanced thinkers, like Vashti, had always held it foolish to visit the surface of the earth” (18). Although a few people express displeasure that they can no longer access a topic they regularly lecture on, others preached the superiority of secondhand sources and ideas. Airships see less and less frequent use over the years. The reverence long held for the Machine has slowly turned into worship—“The Machine is omnipotent, eternal; blessed is the Machine” (19)—but it is not called religion. Those who do not worship the machine are threatened with Homelessness.

As time moves on, there are fewer “master brains” who “understood the monster as a whole” (20) and more people who only understand a small part of how the Machine operates. Vashti continues her routine of lecturing, listening to lectures, eating, sleeping, and speaking to her friends through the Machine. She “believed she was growing more spiritual” (20). Some friends would disappear after requesting Euthanasia. Although Vashti occasionally applied for Euthanasia if she delivered a lecture that did not go well, she was denied because “the death-rate was not permitted to exceed the birth-rate” (20). She receives an unexpected communication from Kuno, who she no longer speaks to (although at one point she learned that he was moved to a room that was close to hers). He tells her, “the Machine stops” (20), claiming that he recognizes the indicators that the Machine is breaking down. She laughs, ridiculing him when speaking to a friend. The friend wonders if Kuno is talking about glitches that have been occurring when they listen to music. Vashti dismisses this, sure that the sounds—“the curious gasping sighs that disfigure the symphonies” (21)—will be repaired.

Vashti complains, but the Mending Apparatus will not answer her questions. As time moves on, more issues arise: The water begins to smell bad, and the buttons that call forth their beds no longer work. Although the people complain with each new problem, they have been conditioned to adapt and accept. The Committee claims that their enemies have sabotaged the Machine. The lecturer who pushed everyone to value secondary ideas tells everyone to trust the Machine and be patient. As the system continues to have problems, Euthanasia becomes unavailable and people are experiencing pain again. The air quality becomes poor, and people are panicking and praying to their Books. One day, while Vashti is lecturing, the communication system cuts out. Vashti remembers Kuno’s warning. The sudden silence is a shock, actually killing thousands of people who, like Vashti, have never lived outside the constant sound of the Machine.

Instinctively, Vashti pushes the button to open the door, which works because it functions independently of the central power station. She sees masses of people outside, frantically pushing against each other and calling to the Machine for help that did not arrive. Vashti returns to her room, the structures around her cracking. She kisses the Book and prays, pressing buttons that do not work. The cell darkens and Vashti realizes that she has to leave. The crowd outside is quieter as the people are dying or dead. She begins to cry and then hears Kuno’s voice. He tells her that he is dying and she goes to him; he kisses her. Vashti asks if there are really people on the surface, and he confirms that he has “seen them, spoken to them, loved them” (25). They are waiting for the Machine to die. Vashti exclaims that someone will restart the Machine tomorrow, but Kuno replies, “Never. Humanity has learnt its lesson” (25). An airship careens down, crashing, lighting up the platform for a second before they are all killed.