Fat Books & Thin Women

Story Sundays: E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Each Sunday I’ll write about a short story available online. If you read the story, please add your thoughts in the comments!

When I first “discovered” E.M. Forster, back in high school, I didn’t like his short stories much, particularly those with a sci-fi bent. I wanted him to be writing little Rooms with a View, and that he wasn’t at the time seemed unforgiveable.

But his story “The Machine Stops,” made up of three chapters, is prescient and creepy even if it is sometimes preachy. Mankind has shifted life underground, where everything from the air people breathe to the food they eat is handled by machine. People don’t interact face-to-face with other people if they can help it, but remain in their own rooms and communicate via the Machine, as do Vashti and her son Kuno:

He broke off, and she fancied that he looked sad. She could not be sure, for the Machine did not transmit nuances of expression. It only gave a general idea of people – an idea that was good enough for all practical purposes, Vashti thought.

People believe, of course, that this way of life is the most correct and that those who came before were vulgar in their movements and the physical affection they showed to other people. Those who challenge the Machine become “homeless,” which is to say that they’re put above-ground to die.

Aspects of the story presage the internet – this idea of communicating not in person but via a vast network other people are connected to at nearly all times – which is what got me interested in rereading it. Vashti’s son Kuno wants to see life outside of the Machine, to see what lies on the surface, to see the hills which, he discovers, are themselves “alive”; and it’s his experience that makes the last two-thirds of The Machine Stops a quick if unnerving read.

“Cannot you see, cannot all you lecturers see, that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the Machine? We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralysed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops – but not on our lies. The Machine proceeds – but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die. […]”

Read “The Machine Stops”



The fact that Forster wrote this kind of story is completely new to me! How fascinating. Do you happen to know the children’s book City of Ember? It is about what sounds like a very different underground city that is dying as its machines begin to stop. I wonder if the author had read this story?

It has been a long time since I read Room with a View, but I may have to fit this story in soon.

Comment by LifetimeReader

interesting, i wonder if the author did read this story…the kind of question i’d love to ask the writer. i watched the movie (a regrettable decision); as i remember it, the feel is pretty different from forster’s story in that there’s hardly any physical contact between people in “the machine stops.” but you’ve got these kind of mysterious elements in both, it sounds like…”the builders” in “city of ember” and “the machine” in forster’s story. i might have to read “city of ember” and try rescuing it from my memories of the film adaptation.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I adored this story! I read and reviewed it last year. Actually it’s the only thing by Forster i’ve so far liked…

Comment by Amanda

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