Young People Read Old SFF

The Machine Stops

E. M. Forster

Welcome to the first set of reviews for Phase II of Young People Review Old Science Fiction and Fantasy. In the hope of selecting more accessible works, I crowd-sourced my selections and now provide my readers with more (well, any) background information on the pieces.

The first Phase II story comes from an author not generally thought of as an SFF author. E. M. Forster is perhaps best known for mainstream works like Howard’s End, A Passage to India and A Room with a View. Forster did write fantastic fiction, however. 1909’s “The Machine Stops” is the one Sfnal work of his many who rarely venture outside SF have read, thanks to all the genre anthologies that featured it. Set in a wired world not too dissimilar to our own, it hides its age well. Or so it seems to me.

Will going outside the boundaries of standard genre be the key to finding accessible SF? Let’s find out!

“The Machine Stops” is available here.

Feel free to comment here.




The Machine Stops is over 100 years old, but feels extremely relevant. It talks about what pundits have repeatedly warned us about – a time when all we do is sit around not actually experiencing anything not on the internet. It is pretty impressive how the story, written in 1909, did such an excellent job of predicting what is kind of happening to us with the Internet. I enjoy the creepy dystopian elements of the story, the world that was built up and torn down, and I would definitely read a prequel or sequel to the story.

One of my favourite elements of the story is how the middle aged main character is completely reliant on the technology and needs her rebellious child to point out to her that there is more to life than being on the computer. The child does all these weird things like, want to speak in person and play outdoors. I appreciate how it's the opposite of what seems to be happening today. But who knows, maybe as our aging population's health starts to fail, older people will become overreliant on technology, and we as their children will miss seeing them in-person.

Basically, if the story comes true, there will come a day where all baby boomers are old enough that they can't take care of themselves without the assistance of technology, their grown millennial children will beg them to spend time outdoors and not rely entirely on machines, and a baby boomer will write an article declaring that millennials are ruining the internet.


—Lisa

"The Machine Stops" was a pleasant story. Written in 1909, it is impressively prescient and predictive of how energy-greedy consuming modern humans work.

This story reminds me of many things:

It reminds me of the generation ship in Wall-E, in which the ship handles caring for all the humans. People have made themselves prisoners by being complacent, like in this story.

It reminds me of post-apocalyptic movements. We have everything from vapid post-apocalyptic entertainment to hardcore preppers who plan to have enough to live self-sufficiently for years should all human infrastructure collapse. In everyday ways, the anxiety of this story reminds me of the big push towards buzzwords like “all-natural”, “clean living”, “non-GMO”, etc.

It reminds me of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “When the Bough Breaks” in which the Aldeans steal children from the Enterprise because the planet’s population can no longer reproduce. The Aldeans don’t know why because their technology and understanding hasn’t improved over time, but it turns out they’re infertile because (29 year old spoiler alert) the machine that takes care of them – the Custodian – is flawed and has been destroying the ozone layer, which serves as protection from radiation. As you can guess, none of the Aldeans really know how their technology works, so there’s no one to diagnose the problem and to fix it unless others interfere.

But ultimately, this story reminds me of the loneliness of the modern age. It’s easier than ever to connect with people, and yet I find it easy to surround myself with people while feeling lonely. There’s a difference between being lonely and being by yourself.

Like in the story, there’s pressure to present an interesting (or at least positive) face. Do that too often though, and you end up exhausted. The worst is when ‘friends’ reject you for not feeling great today. Personally, I’m lucky to feel very little pressure to perform positivity outside of work (yay, customer service). I share a few things here or there online, either significant life events or something that I think other people will find interesting. In contrast, the stereotype (especially for young people) is that we share everything in our lives. Really, I’d say I share online about 1% of what I’m doing. This rant is a weirdly ironic thing to put up on a public blog, but hey you’re still reading this.

I found the horror of contact with other people to be similar to a horror of being outside one’s comfort zone. The horror of seeing another person face-to-face reminds me of extreme introverts and/or socially anxious people: this is a great way to describe the stress of free-form socialization. I grew up with both extreme introversion and social anxiety. One of the things that helped was experience – something the isolated underground inhabitants of this story fail to have and which is actively discouraged. Experience and some measure of control are key. In life, this seems like a bad idea. I’m told this is how we end up with super-spoiled children. (insert joke about current American politics)

I give this story a soft thumbs up. I liked it well enough, and it was definitely impressive for having been written over 100 years ago. But overall it was a bit of a long story. I like a bit more plot in my stories, especially if the story is divided into several parts. It was an interesting story for reflecting on today’s world.

The Machine began a long time ago for us.




—Mel

This story has aged remarkably well. Except for some details of the technology, it sounds like it could be someone from today who is convinced that the internet is ruining kids these days, and we all need to get away from screens to engage with the so-called real world.

Which, unfortunately, means that I didn’t care for it that much. I’ve seen so many iterations of “people will get too obsessed with technology and stop caring about the outside/talking to each other and it will DOOM US ALL” to need to read yet another one.

This plot of this story also felt very thin. Maybe it’s because most of the technology is something I’ve seen before, either in science fiction or real life, and that the plot feels like one that’s been recycled so many times, there isn’t very much to keep my interest.

For me, a major weakness in this story is that it fails to have any nuance about the society it has built. Technology is framed in this as universally bad and isolating, which ignores how it can be a benefit to connecting people and building community. I would have liked to see more exploration of the idea than was actually present. I can’t take it seriously, because I live with many of these technologies and they have been a net positive in my life. I would not want to exist in a world without video calls and instant messaging and, shockingly, they have not yet lead to the downfall of society.

I feel like I am impressed by how early this story was published, but that is the only impressive thing about it. I’ve seen it done too many times, and done better, for it to be a compelling critique of the way we interact with technology.


—Mikayla

The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster poses the idea of a possible future where humanity become slaves to a machine which serves their every need after transitioning into subterranean colonies. While citizens of this future view their existence as a utopia, as the plot progresses it is re-imagined as a dystopia.

One interesting aspect of the story is how characters interact with technology.

While their entire existence is supported by a single machine, they are still amazed by what they have built. The fact that they can see low quality images of each other in real time is frequently referred to in awe, which is interesting seeing how we currently take services such as skype and social media as a given part of life.

While the language and grammar used by Forester does date the piece, it remains relatively easy to comprehend and does not retract from the story being told. Overall this was an enjoyable story which is especially interesting in the context of our technology and information based lives today.


—Raya