The Machine Stops

There were buttons and switches everywhere – buttons to call for food for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.

Vashanti’s next move was to turn off the isolation switch, and all the accumulations of the last three minutes burst upon her. The room was filled with the noise of bells, and speaking-tubes. What was the new food like? Could she recommend it? Has she had any ideas lately? Might one tell her one’s own ideas? —E.M. ForsterThe Machine Stops

This short story was written almost 100 years ago, but this passage perfectly captures what I feel like after I’ve been away from the office for a while, and return in order to find new e-mails stacked up and messages on the answering machine. The story is full of the kind of moralizing one often finds in cheesey 1950s sci-fi movies, but this was ahead of its time. I’m teaching it for the first time today, in “Intro to Literary Studies“.

The Literature, Arts and Medicine Database has a brief annotation on this story, and Marvin Thomas has compiled some other interesting links that examine this story. My favorite is the one written in 1998, which presents this story in the context of Y2K readiness.

While driving to work this morning, I had the crazy idea that it would make a good basis for an interactive fiction game. I’ve already got so much on my plate that I’m sure I’ll never get to it, but thinking about it was an interesting mental activity.

It gave me ideas.