Considering the time of writing, astonishingly and horribly prophetic
E.M.Forster wrote this ‘Science Fiction story’ in 1909. Pre-computer, pre-world wide web, pre-smart talking to itself technology.
Just over 100 years later this seems not like science fiction at all, more, something which might be a mere handful of years away, and in many ways, already here.
Set sometime in the future (at the time of writing) human beings have gratefully done away with all the challenging, messy stuff of having to communicate with each other, and skilfully negotiate co-operation with another face to face human being, in real time and place.
Instead, each lives softly cocooned like a babe inside a personal pod, where all wants are regulated by sentient technology. The technology ‘The Machine’ was once created and conceived of by humans, but now it does things so much more efficiently than any one human can do. All needs, be they of ambient temperature, health and well being, education, entertainment, furniture, are seamlessly provided by the machine, and the human being in its pod never has to rub up against the messy flesh of another. Communication happens by seeing (and hearing) each other on some kind of screen. You in your small pod, me in mine
Everything that can be controlled, is, and everything that can’t, in the material world, is regarded as unpleasant and dangerous.
Living happens in the personal pod, deep below the earth, where the air supply is regulated, and purified. The surface of the earth is deemed dangerous, the air not fit to breathe. The Machine has told us so, so it must be true.
Vashti, the central character is happy in her pod. Her son is a difficult and challenging embarrassment to her and their ‘meetings’ on screen do not go well. He also has disturbing things to say about The Machine, and appears to harbour dangerously subversive ideas about a better, earlier time, when people communicated directly with each other. And then………well, the title of the story shows where this will lead.
Twenty-first century readers can’t help but look around at a world where we are all clutching our little screens,facetwitting, Instachatting, occupying the same space as each other in cafes, on buses, colliding on the street, but rarely connecting with each other, in real. Terminals in shops instruct us that we have placed an unrecognised item in the bagging area. Doctor’s surgeries require us to register our arrival on a screen, whilst the receptionist communicates only with her own terminal. And children, so we are told, no longer realise that potatoes grow in the earth, milk comes from cows, and, from early years are plonked in front of screens with brightly coloured moving shapes, emoticons and squawking sounds, so their harassed parents can get on with the important stuff of staring at their own little screens, busy with brightly coloured moving shapes, emoticons and squawks of their own
Whilst I certainly prefer Forster’s more ‘traditional’, literary novels of relationship this is a horribly possible vision, and it is tempting to categorise it as contemporary fiction, not Sci-Fi at all
A short piece, it punches the gut and leaves the reader gasping for breath
And, the inevitable link to my virtual bloggy buddy FictionFan, who once again brought something to my attention I would otherwise not have known about. You can read her review here. We have never met, in real, and I realise the whole wonderful book blogging community is a ‘virtual’ like Forster is warning us about. There are many good things about our virtual connections, but I sincerely hope to live out my days on the surface of this planet, not beneath it (that can come later!) and welcome the real faces of real people as we meet each other, bump against each other, and even talk, face to face, in real time and space
A version a little more alarming than the better known one by Simon and Garfunkel