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The Machine Stops, The 1909 Precursor To Techno-Dystopian Sci-Fi

E.M. Forster’s classic short story The Machine Stops was one of the first techno-dystopian science fiction stories.

In the futuristic world of the Machine Stops, the majority of humans have lost the ability to live on the surface of the Earth. The remaining population lives underground, in the belly of a gigantic central computer called simply the Machine. Each individual lives an isolated existence in their own cell, with nourishment (both mental and physical) supplied by the Machine, which eventually becomes worshipped as a God. When the Machine starts exhibiting erratic behavior, what we would call ‘bugs’, humanity interprets them as the inscrutable whims of a deity. But soon enough, the Machine breaks down, and Civilization breaks down as each isolated human emerges from their cell, as out-of-place and helpless as a goldfish flopping around in the shattered pieces of it goldfish bowl.

The story’s remarkable for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that the plot of a central machine controlling the lives of humans has been used in countless science-fiction movies since. The Matrix and Metropolis are a couple of obvious parallels, as are a number of films from the 60’s and 70’s. Forster’s story also predicted the creation of television, video-conferencing and online communities (80 years before the Internet became popular).

If you’re interested in reading the full text of the story, it can be found online here. But otherwise, wile away the afternoon with this excellent 1960’s adaptation of The Machine Stops, originally broadcast in the UK on the sci-fi anthology series Out of the Unknown.

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