Dystopian fiction and radical politics


Friday, October 8, 2021

The Social Network 1.0

"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."

-- The Machine Stops, E.M. Forster (1909)

E.M. Forster’s celebrated book A Room with a View is considered one of the greatest British novels of all time. Published in 1908, the Edwardian comedy of manners was Forster’s breakthrough novel, part of a prodigious literary output that would span decades and genres, including fiction and non-fiction, living after his death in 1970 in the form of acclaimed films, including Howards End and A Passage to India. The book describes a young British woman’s adventures in Italy and her pursuit of love within the period’s social strictures.  

One year after A Room with a View was published to wide acclaim, Forster turned his hand to a short story of a starkly different nature, The Machine Stops.

Sometime in the far future, Vashti spends most days alone in her room, wired into an elaborate worldwide electronic network. Run by “the Machine,” the network allows her to give and attend remote video lectures, and to endlessly trade “ideas” with her friends, whose messages arrive with in a clangor of bell-like notification sounds. The Machine fulfils her every need; buttons summon food, drink, even her bed. She only leaves her chair to sleep, her body atrophied from lack of use, just like all of her friends.

When Vashti’s son, Kuno, requests to see her in person, she protests that she is too busy for such distractions, but reluctantly agrees, boarding an airship. She keeps in touch with him out of pure sentimentality. According to the Machine, the duties of the parent “cease at the moment of birth,” when babies are whisked off to public nurseries.

As the airship soars over the majestic Himalayas, Vashti asks the airship attendant to cover the windows, complaining, “These mountains give me no ideas.”

Kuno, unlike his mother, is curious about the surface world, but he fails to spark her interest in his explorations. She returns to her room, and her friends, and her ideas. Years pass before she hears from Kuno again, who calls her on the network with a warning: “The Machine is stopping.” She scoffs, but soon the signs become clear. The music, transmitted over the network, begins to glitch. The air, circulated mechanically throughout the compound, goes stale. The food and water taste bad. Eventually even the bed fails to materialize when the proper button is pressed, and finally, the communication network fails, forcing the near-invalid populace to crawl out of their rooms into the hallways of the underground compound, wailing in despair.

The Machine Stops is a remarkable work. Vaulting far ahead of the steampunk contrivances of his contemporaries, Forster offers the first literary comment on social media—and its limits, subtly noting the vacuity of the “ideas” community and the flattening effect of virtual communication. When Kuno begs Vashti to visit him in person, he says, “I see something like you in this [screen], but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you.”

Read the story here




Books/short stories read: 95

Films and TV series watched: 124


The Turner Diaries, the infamous racist dystopian novel by neo-Nazi William Luther Pierce, has inspired more than 200 murders since its publication in 1978, including the single deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history, the Oklahoma City bombing.

The book is arguably the most important single work of white nationalist propaganda in the English language, but it is not a singular artifact. The Turner Diaries is part of a genre of racist dystopian propaganda dating back to the U.S. Civil War. A new paper from J.M. Berger documents the books that directly and indirectly inspired Turner and examine the extensive violence that the novel has inspired.



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J.M. Berger is an author, consultant and analyst studying extremism. He is an associate fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism -- The Hague and a fellow with George Washington University's Program on Extremism. For more about Berger, click here.


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