When the machine stops!

31 Aug

Back when mankind was just getting ready for the first manned Moon landing (in the very late 1960s, that is) I was taking my GCE “O” Level examinations, one of which was in English Literature.

Well, since you absolutely HAD to go and ask, I failed it!

Twice actually as I did a “re-take” later in the year and got exactly the same grade.

This was not down to any lack of interest in English Literature – my nose has seldom been out of a book since I started reading just before I started school.

Oh no. The big problem I had was in the bits of said literature that the Examination Board set us to study in that particular era.

These comprised:

  1. “Twelfth Night” by that Shakespeare bloke, of whom you have probably heard.This is a highly confusing and highly unlikely farcical story involving a shipwreck, cross-dressing twins, characters with near-anagrammatical names (Olivia and Viola if I remember correctly) and a love-struck servant with ideas above his station. I was bored senseless by the whole thing and would probably have passed the exam in a flash had we been assigned “Henry V” or anything with a bit more action.
  2. “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding. For some reason I was scared shitless by this “modern” novel! If I even attempted to read it during the homework period in the evening at home I would have nightmares – so I stopped bothering to do any LotF based homework! My copy of what is probably a well-written classic story still sits on my bookshelves, perennially unread 46 years later.
  3. “Twentieth Century Short Stories” by various authors writing between 1901 and its publication date of 1959.This was someone’s idea of a “best of” compilation of thought provoking or witty writing. It is quite slim volume containing only six stories most of which were (to me) quite forgettable.

I have a couple of reasons for my remembering the last named item – the first being that, despite it being school property, I still have it. I borrowed it for that November 1969 examination retake and really must return it one day.

The other reason for calling it to mind is that a recent newspaper article (which I will get to later) reminded me of the one story in it that I actually remembered. It was a story that was one of my introductions to the field of dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction that I told you about here Although I didn’t actually credit it there and probably did actually read “Day of the Triffids” first, it was still a significant factor in my liking that kind of fiction.

I am well aware that “Lord of the Flies” is, in fact, set in a time when World War 3 is going on but that is just background and it is, I think, the psychological side of that story that scared me – so I don’t count it in that genre.

I see that I have not yet named the story in question and will tell you without further ado that it is “The Machine Stops” by E.M Forster and it dates from 1909. It is a story of a society that after many future wars and upheavals has become homogenised and pacified. All humans live underground in single person cells and all food, heat, light and high quality Audio-visual communications are provided (presumably free of charge) by “The Machine”. Travel, even international “airship” travel is not prohibited but is frowned upon as unnecessary and is used less every year even though “The Machine” finds it easier to run empty airships than to cut back or abandon the service.

I won’t give away the plot but you can probably guess the ending from the title of the story and all that dependence on technology leads me to draw what I think are very obvious parallels with our own increasing dependence on computers (our very own version of “The Machine”). Take a moment and think really hard about what would happen if all the aspects of our society and industry, food production etc. that are computer controlled were suddenly not so controlled!

I believe that the only thing stopping us from sliding headlong into a similar sort of society to that of this story is our lack of the unimaginably powerful, self-sustaining power supply that Forster takes for granted in his story.

Even so, steps towards our own destruction are being taken and the newspaper article that I mentioned above details one of them. It was a report buried deep in the uninteresting middle pages between the advertisements for holidays and walk-in baths for the elderly (as if it were of no consequence at all) and it related that the Education authorities in Finland are ditching the teaching of handwriting and are going to concentrate on keyboard skills instead!

Does no-one other than me see where that might lead? If the power goes out and you need to send a message it will do no good whatsoever to take a sheet of writing paper (if such a thing still exists) and rattle your fingers over it as if typing! We are dumping our “manual backup systems” and that can surely never be a good idea, can it?

Yes, I know that I am publishing this on the Internet via a computer but I should tell you that all of these blog posts are written initially by hand, on paper – just so that I don’t forget how to do it and so that a hard copy may survive for someone to read the old fashioned way, some day.

Finally, since starting this piece I have discovered that if you follow the link at the end of this sentence, you will be able to read “The Machine Stops” for yourself.

Unless, of course, the Internet stops – in which case we will all have much more serious things to worry about!



Posted by on August 31, 2015 in Schooldays


2 responses to “When the machine stops!

  1. Vincent

    September 3, 2015 at 12:47 pm

    Our experiences resonate together. I took English twice – and got grade 4 twice (pointlessly; no potential employer EVER asked you what your grades were – just the subjects passed) – largely down to my HAND-writing (I use all-caps now).

    And I too never liked Twelfth Night OR Lord Of The Flies (and never completed either, either).

    Plus I too was a BIG-time fan of John Wyndham – read his entire canon in the Seventies.

    Ah, books…

    One day, I’ll catch up to those Saint novels you sent me, that I hadn’t kept.

    One day…

  2. Vincent

    September 3, 2015 at 12:48 pm

    p.s. …and at 42, I belatedly became a writer!


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