In this short science fiction story, Forster describes a world in which almost all humans have lost the ability to live on the surface of the Earth. Each individual lives in isolation in a ‘cell’, with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global Machine. Most humans welcome this development, as they are skeptical and fearful of first-hand experience. People forget that humans created the Machine, and treat it as a mystical entity whose needs supersede their own. Those who do not accept the deity of the Machine are viewed as ‘unmechanical’ and are threatened with ‘Homelessness’. Eventually, the Machine apocalyptically collapses, and the civilization of the Machine comes to an end.
49 pages, with a reading time of ~0.75 hours (12,311 words), and first published in 1909. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, 2017.
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Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk-that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh-a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.
An electric bell rang.
The woman touched a switch and the music was silent.
“I suppose I must see who it is”, she thought, and set her chair in motion. The chair, like the music, was worked by machinery and it rolled her to the other side of the room where the bell still rang importunately.
“Who is it?” she called. Her voice was irritable, for she had been interrupted often since the music began. She knew several thousand people, in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.
But when she listened into the receiver, her white face wrinkled into smiles, and she said:
“Very well. Let us talk, I will isolate myself. I do not expect anything important will happen for the next five minutes-for I can give you fully five minutes, Kuno. Then I must deliver my lecture on “Music during the Australian Period”.”
She touched the isolation knob, so that no one else could speak to her. Then she touched the lighting apparatus, and the little room was plunged into darkness.
“Be quick!” She called, her irritation returning. “Be quick, Kuno; here I am in the dark wasting my time.”
But it was fully fifteen seconds before the round plate that she held in her hands began to glow. A faint blue light shot across it, darkening to purple, and presently she could see the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the earth, and he could see her.
“Kuno, how slow you are.”
He smiled gravely.
“I really believe you enjoy dawdling.”
“I have called you before, mother, but you were always busy or isolated. I have something particular to say.”
“What is it, dearest boy? Be quick. Why could you not send it by pneumatic post?”
“Because I prefer saying such a thing. I want—-“
“I want you to come and see me.”
Vashti watched his face in the blue plate.
“But I can see you!” she exclaimed. “What more do you want?”
“I want to see you not through the Machine,” said Kuno. “I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”
“Oh, hush!” said his mother, vaguely shocked. “You mustn”t say anything against the Machine.”
“You talk as if a god had made the Machine,” cried the other.
“I believe that you pray to it when you are unhappy. Men made it, do not forget that. Great men, but men. The Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That is why I want you to come. Pay me a visit, so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my mind.”
She replied that she could scarcely spare the time for a visit.
“The air-ship barely takes two days to fly between me and you.”
“I dislike air-ships.”
“I dislike seeing the horrible brown earth, and the sea, and the stars when it is dark. I get no ideas in an air- ship.”
“I do not get them anywhere else.”
“What kind of ideas can the air give you?”
He paused for an instant.
“Do you not know four big stars that form an oblong, and three stars close together in the middle of the oblong, and hanging from these stars, three other stars?”
“No, I do not. I dislike the stars. But did they give you an idea? How interesting; tell me.”
“I had an idea that they were like a man.”
“I do not understand.”
“The four big stars are the man”s shoulders and his knees.
The three stars in the middle are like the belts that men wore once, and the three stars hanging are like a sword.”
“Men carried swords about with them, to kill animals and other men.”
“It does not strike me as a very good idea, but it is certainly original. When did it come to you first?”
“In the air-ship—–” 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. The imponderable bloom, declared by a discredited philosophy to be the actual essence of intercourse, was rightly ignored by the Machine, just as the imponderable bloom of the grape was ignored by the manufacturers of artificial fruit. Something “good enough” had long since been accepted by our race.