Some years ago I took a class at the University of Virginia called "The Rhetoric of Utopia." It was a depraved little academic experience. There were just six of us, including the professor. He was young but leaned forward like a vulture, eyes fixed on us, unblinking. His skin was pale and waxy, his voice flat and barely audible. His white hands pressed down on the edge of the table as though he were preparing to leap over it in sudden violence. The cumulative effect was one of menace, if not actual demonic possession, but for all that he was as harmless as a sheep. The danger, I realized too late, resided not in the courier but the message itself.
In those days (drunk on fiction, crazed with hope and fear for the planet, yo-yo’ing through the week on caffeine and booze, constantly horny and heartbroken) you could say that I was rather excitable. I climbed trees and hooted like a gibbon. I worked diligently to perfect a gray wolf howl atop the local parking garage, broke into song in crowded hallways, or walked around the university in slippers with my nose in The Brothers Karamazov. A newly discovered book would get me babbling, celebrating it to anyone who’d listen or pretend to listen or at least refrain from silencing me by force.
Vanity and terror and hormones and wealth: of course it was all that. But at its best it was a little bit more. I was Open to Ideas. They went through me like lances, then, and no armor of self could turn them aside.
In the Utopia class, ideas came in a frenzy. Day after day we devoured, debated and (surely) often misunderstood a grand parade of musings on the fate of humankind, from St. Augustine’s The City of God to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Some ideas were beautiful: only in a healed world, says William Morris, can one bare to contemplate sharing a heart. Others—from the dystopian tradition--were ghastly. To the young Gandhian I was then, Professor Waxy brutally observed that in Stalin’s Russia the Mahatma and his movement would have vanished without a trace.
We read the classic dystopias as well, of course: Orwell, Huxley, Zamiatin. They were scary enough in places, especially Zamiatin’s city of glass. But all these works paled in comparison to a little short story by tweedy old E.M. Forster. That story, “The Machine Stops,” chills me to this day. I began to think of it as simply The Nightmare. Not because it is graphic, or fails to show its age. In fact it is because of its age—101 years, now—that it frightens me so. If you read it, try to bear it mind that it was written by a bookish young man in London before the era of routine radio communication, to say nothing of televisions, airplanes and computing machines.
The true frightfulness of the story, though, is a product of the ferocity of the author’s vision. Like any great SF writer, Forster’s imagined not only technological change, but how that changed world could plausibly feel, in all its quirky, tortured specifics, in the hearts of a mother and a son. He wrote well, in other words. He made the story hurt.
I have never been able to ponder the Internet without recalling “The Machine Stops.” With the advent of Facebook (and a new mental disorder, so The Machine tells me, which manifests as a compulsion to be forever online) we move one step closer to the world Forster glimpsed in 1909.
Read it if you will. Then breathe some fresh air and play with a dog and kiss your loved ones. Life should not be squandered on screens.