I’m taking a class called “Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy” this semester, which — as you might be able to tell — basically means that I sit in a room once a week with other people who probably spend most of their time online, and we talk about made-up technology and sometimes space pirates. The space pirates only make the occasional appearance, but it turns out that the made-up technology part is pretty crucial to the genre. Imagine, for instance, a world in which the aliens of the planet Yorigan in the year 572214543 email each other and listen to iPods. Or one in which the captain of the rebel ship of space pirates grabs his Blackberry to make a call while his first lieutenant Googles something. In science fiction — at least in science fiction set in some future, space pirates optional — the technology has got to be part of the fiction. It has to be impressive, and new, and it can’t be so mundane as to actually exist.
Which is why I found myself somewhat unimpressed with the short story “The Machine Stops” upon first reading. In that work of so-called “science fiction,” people sit in small rooms underground and access anything and everything they need — food, communication with other people, music, even lectures on wide-ranging subjects — through the simple press of a button. Of course, things go downhill from that blandly utopian beginning (I won’t give away the plot, but let’s just say that when a machine fulfills your every need, and then “The Machine Stops,” it’s not good), but I was stuck on what I assumed was a not-that-creative metaphor for the Internet. At least, “The Machine Stops” seems like it could have been written by someone like my father, who doesn’t entirely understand the Internet but is nevertheless convinced that it has made me some kind of underground-bubble-living, nonfunctioning, computer addict.
So I Googled the story to make sure my father wasn’t living a secret life as a writer of poorly disguised anti-Internet science fiction and discovered that, in fact, that would be impossible, since “The Machine Stops” was written by E.M. Forster, in 1909. And yet, here I sit, in front of a machine through which I can order food, see my friends, listen to music — even access lectures on anything I want, thanks to the seemingly endless number of TED talks archived on YouTube. “But you’re not locked in an underground bubble!” the intrepid reader of this column will point out. Well, first of all, those are just details. In the ways that count, E.M. Forster has proven that science fiction really does predict the future, so if you ask me, we should all start worrying about space pirates invading any minute now.
And secondly, dear reader, my father would disagree with you. “The Internet has imprisoned your mind!” he would say to me, as he has many times before, and then he would do something wholesome like cut down a tree just to prove that his muscles hadn’t atrophied from sitting motionless in front of a screen.
And who’s to say, really, that he’s wrong? If E.M. Forster predicted the existence of the Internet back in 1909, then he could well have been right about the underground bubbles, too — at least metaphorically. As one commenter on an online forum I frequent said — I mean, wrote — the other day, “ok my life is ridiculous. from now on its back to reading books. wtf i havent read a book for pleasure in ages just cuz the internet is more immediate and i fuck around on it watching beluga whales getting serenaded by mariachi bands all the time. thats gotta stop!”
Not to demean the intellectual and cultural importance of beluga whales being serenaded by mariachi bands — there’s probably a TED talk on it somewhere out there — but the anonymous commenter, like my father, has a point. The Internet is a magical place, but sometimes even the most utopian of magical places can turn into a zombie-filled apocalyptic dystopia if you give it too much power. I’m not saying, “Don’t use the Internet” (for the love of God, my own withdrawal symptoms might kill me), but I am saying, “Heed the warnings of E.M. Forster, and of my father. Don’t let the Internet become your underground bubble, because even if the Machine never stops, your muscles will atrophy to the point that when the space pirates invade, there’ll be no one to stop them.”