Sep 27, 2008

Short Story Saturday - The Machine Stops Part 1

I was first exposed to "The Machine Stops" by
E.M. Forster through a book called Scraps of the Untainted Sky. The title of the book, in fact, comes from the closing line of the short story, which the author considers to be "one of the first instance of dystopian narrative." I purchased this book several years ago in order to gain insight into my interest in dystopic literature. This interest has been newly rekindled and broadened into science fiction in general. If you call yourself a fan of science fiction and you haven't read this story, do so now or you are a fraud. If you think you don't like science fiction, I suggest you read this story and make sure. (Audio and full text are available online for free.) This short story, if you can classify it as such at 12,000 words, has 3 chapters and was published in 1909. The date of publication is overwhelming when one takes into consideration how many technological advances the author was able to predict. The post-apocalyptic dystopic story was written as "a reaction to the earlier [technological] heaven of H.G. Wells," but when we see it through the modern lens it seems completely plausible.

The story is so dense I have just decided to go over it in parts.
Part 1: The Machine

Chapter 1: The Air-Ship
"Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk - that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh - a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs."
The story opens with an invitation to bring your mind into the story. Into the room, in the words of Moylan, there sits a "quasi-human inhabitant." The story is told between the opposing politics of two characters. The one we see here is Vashti, the mother. Her opposing force is Kuno, her son. In this world, parental duties cease at the moment of birth, but it is not required to cut contact with offspring. Vashti speaks in the voice of propaganda and honor for the machine. Kuno speaks in the voice of hope and honor for the unknown.

In the first chapter we understand the world through the mother. This woman who sits inside a room, like most others of the society, sitting in this mechanical room, having every desire filled. Who attends to Vashti's needs?

The Machine does. What is the machine? Find out.

"'I want to see you not through the Machine,' said Kuno. 'I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.'
'Oh, hush!' said his mother, vaguely shocked. 'You mustn't say anything against the Machine.'
'Why not?'
'One mustn't.'
'You talk as if a god had made the Machine,' cried the other."
It is not a god, yet it is treated with reverence. The Machine provides for needs and enables communication. It provides life without thought, when one does not know what to do they consult the Book of the Machine.
"In it were instructions against every possible contingency. If she was hot or cold or dyspeptic or at a loss for a word, she went to the book, and it told her which button to press."
But for Kuno there is more to life than can be told to him by the Machine. The Machine and the cells that hold the individual inhabitants are deep underground now that the surface of the Earth does not support much life. But he is still curious about it. He tells his mother, "'The Machine is much, but it is not everything.'" He also, if you recall, accuses her of, in a sense, worshiping the Machine. She is very ingrained in the ideology of the times. She believes in the Machine and all that it can bring her. She tells Kuno that his desire to go to the surface is "contrary to the spirit of the age."

Vashti recognizes that scarifies have been made for the Machine but she is happy with the conveniences it provides her. She is happy with the status quo. Kuno is pushing and fighting against it, not wanting to give up the hope for something more than sitting in a chair in an empty room and having your wishes fulfilled with the push of a button. Vashti sees no need for life to change. Current life for her is perfection. Which she expresses towards the end of the first chapter.

"How we had advanced, thanks to the Machine."

Thanks also to E.M. Forster for creating this amazing story. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am looking forward to exploring more of it with you. Have you read this story? What did you like about it? Do you want to read this story? If you do, please let me know!

Sep 21, 2008

The Sunday Salon - Delayed Short Story

♫ You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last. But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast.♫


After reading my last short story entry on The Lottery, my friend and fellow plurker, NoLu, comment that for her it was deeply connected to Joyce Carol Oates's Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? I decided to pick that as my next reading in her honor. You can visit her on her blog to find out more about her, what she's reading, and her family.

"All art is autobiographical." ~JCO

Joyce Carol Oates was often inspired by real life events. Her realism acts as a sieve through which her social criticism is combined with interpretations of myth and literary conventions. Through her literature Oates explores different facets of everyday life in America. Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? was originally published in 1967.

"Her name was Connie. She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people's faces to make sure her own was all right. Her mother, who noticed everything and knew everything and who hadn't much reason any longer to look at her own face, always scolded Connie about it."
The story opens with your average teenage girl exploring her vanities and/or insecurities. Which is it? With teens, things are never what they seem. What can be perceived as vanity could really be deep set masked insecurities. But Connie expresses her understanding that "...she knew she was pretty and that was everything." While at first you are concerned that maybe she doesn't think strongly enough of herself, but it is even more unsettling to find out that her vanity means everything to her. Her beauty is a directly connected to her understanding of self worth.

Connie finds the need to create a duality in her life. She is split into appearance and reality as she makes the transition from child to woman, seemingly being both and neither at the same time. "Everything about her had two sides to it, one for home and one for anywhere that was not home..." Connie enjoyed the woman she could be while out with her friends. She enjoyed the attention from boys. But there was also a sanctuary that being home provided. Her summer was filled with music and boy. The bridge between innocence and maturity. Connie is trying to find her place in the world and understand her identity. Her understanding of herself is still firmly rooted in her physical beauty.

"But all the boys fell back and dissolved into a single face that was not even a face but an idea, a feeling, mixed up with the urgent insistent pounding of the music and the humid night air of July." The tinkling sounds of music run through the narrative. Connie is striving for the feeling, the idea, the something more than she has now. Because for all her beauty, she isn't finding love, though she has a strong desire for it. The threads of music stitched her desires with reality. "Connie sat with her eyes closed in the sun, dreaming and dazed with the warmth about her as if this were a kind of love, the caresses of love..."

The story is about an average teenager, in an average town, doing average things. She seems o have a distinct personality, she is a fully fleshed character in the reader's mind. But soon the conceptions of her begin to change, just as they are for herself.

The Dylanesque rock star wannabe arrives. His voice speaks the words of music. His hands tap the rhythm of life. His voice lilts like the lyrics of Dylan. He is interesting and dangerous.

Arnold Friend is a stronger who doesn't seem a stranger. He knows you well enough hat maybe you figure you should know him too. I see him as the antithesis of the Everyman. He is the Noman. For Conner he transitions from a minor annoyance to a full blow threat when "...she had the idea that he had driven up the driveway all right but had come from nowhere before that and belonged nowhere and that everything about him and even about the music that was so familiar to her was only half real." The realization flashed across the descriptions of Arnold. Suddenly he is acting like a boy, playing the part, saying rehearsed words, wearing a mask. He stands before Connie in his rocker boy costume attempting to seduce her. At the same time hinting at the harm that may come to her. Connie's interaction with Arnold becomes more surrealistic as each of his devilish disguises are observed by Connie. The idea of a masked player with a stumbling nature and ill fitting boot is congruent with other literary concepts of the Devil presented in half human form, often with goat legs or cloven feet. He is now in the role of the tempter.

The ending of the story is intentionally vague. Though Oates has stated that the piece was inspired by the story of a known serial killer. The story is also dedicated to Bob Dylan.
"The story was in fact suggested by a real-life incident involving a young teenaged girl and a "charismatic" serial killer in Tuscon, Arizona, and not by Dylan's song. Yet the haunting melody of "Baby Blue" seemed to beautifully approximate the atmosphere of my story, as of that time."
♫ And it's all over now, Baby Blue. ♫

Press play for an audio of the story.

What do you think the title means?
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