The Horror of Direct Experience: Cyberpunk Bodies and “The Machine Stops”
“The Machine Stops,” E. M. Forster’s masterful science fiction novella from 1909, has long been lauded for its prescient descriptions of electronic communications technology. With its early vision of the allure and danger of global, networked communication, the story is in direct conversation with classic cyberpunk literature.
Cyberpunk culture and the critical discourse that surrounds it tends to be concerned with the interface between technologies and bodies. The following paper largely leaves technology to the side to meditate on the cyberpunk body itself. When a person pursues “the bodiless exultation of cyberspace,” who or what is left behind (Gibson 6)? How is their relationship with the empirical world changed? Today, as coronavirus sweeps the globe and citizens everywhere struggle in and out of pandemic-imposed lockdowns, such questions take on fresh urgency.
“The Machine Stops” is Forster’s only overtly science fictional story, sandwiched in time between A Room with a View (1908) and Howards End (1910), two better-known masterpieces. Though “The Machine Stops” is undoubtedly a work of science fiction—set in a distant future and brimming with descriptions of hypothetical technologies—it is redolent of Forster’s favorite themes: the struggle for human connection and the tension between freedom and restriction. It also represents Forster’s rebuttal of the euphoric view of science and progress espoused by contemporaries like H. G. Wells, as well as his critique of aestheticism, a late-nineteenth century art movement that promoted experiencing the world through the mediation of art (Seegert 34–35).
Forster’s narrative hinges on a future humanity’s radically changed relationship to the body. He imagines a world where technological advancement and environmental necessity have caused people to isolate themselves in underground cells, communicate via videotelephony, and rely on a giant machine for all their needs.
The story focuses on a woman named Vashti and her wayward son Kuno. The Machine provides Vashti with everything she needs, so she rarely leaves her chair, much less her room. She lives a life of “pure mentality” (Seegert 37), using the Machine to study obscure subjects and keep up with thousands of friends. Forster’s descriptions of Vashti’s body dehumanize her and emphasize her sunless, stationary existence. In the story’s opening paragraph, the narrator describes Vashti as a “swaddled lump of flesh” (133), before identifying her as a woman. Scholars have variously interpreted Vashti’s swaddling to suggest infantilization and straightjacketing (Seegert 40) and cocooning and mummification (Caporaletti 35 and 41), but such analyses don’t go far enough. She’s not a baby, she’s a lump. Her Machine-worshiping body has transformed into a doughy, boneless bundle of cells.
Whether one considers Vashti’s transformed body to represent evolution or devolution depends on where one situates the boundaries of her body. In her foundational “Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway asks, “Why should our bodies end at the skin” (61)? N. Katherine Hayles answers, “The boundaries of the autonomous subject are up for grabs” (2). Anne Balsamo connects this line of inquiry to cyberpunk’s “vision of posthuman existence where ‘technology’ and the ‘human’ are understood in contiguous rather than oppositional terms” (136). Alf Seegert applies it directly to Vashti: “Vashti’s mechanically-mediated body is… extended through such external prosthetics and becomes thereby enhanced, not diminished” (43). Vashti never claims the Machine as an extension of her body, but she does view herself as highly evolved. She is “civilized and refined” (Forster 139) and an “advanced thinker” (148). She has no use for the “clumsy system[s]” of previous civilizations (136).
It seems, however, that Forster aims to cast Vashti’s body as devolved, particularly in contrast with her son Kuno. Forster describes Vashti’s physical ugliness: she is toothless and hairless, with “a face as white as a fungus” (133). He emphasizes her frailty—she “tottered” rather than walked (138)—and her primitivism—she “fed” rather than eating (136). In the age of the Machine, Vashti’s physical weakness is not disadvantageous. Instead, “it was a demerit to be muscular,” and infants “who promised undue strength were destroyed” (142).
Vashti’s son Kuno, cursed with physical strength, is his mother’s opposite. If she is pure mentality, he is pure physicality. He repudiates the Machine. He exercises until his flesh aches, until he can run and jump and climb. Kuno dreams of a humanity free of the swaddling garments of the Machine. He believes the “body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong” (142). Vashti’s son disgusts and saddens her. When she notes the hair growing above his lip and fears it signifies his descent into savagery, Forster’s text suggests she considers her own hairlessness a sign of evolutionary advancement.
In the story’s closing scene, the Machine breaks down, wiping out humanity. Vashti’s spirit reunites with Kuno’s, and together they mourn their society’s dependence on the Machine at the expense of the body. Their fate is a warning: in the pursuit of evolution, humans “sin[ned] against the body,” allowing their muscles, nerves, and sense organs to atrophy (153). In a final, damning image, Forster equates humanity’s abandoned body with “white pap” (153). Pap is a soft food, fed to infants and invalids. Forster couldn’t have chosen a more offensively inoffensive and emasculating substance. That pale lump from early in the story has transformed still further into a bland, milky mush. In Forster’s dystopian view, the cyberpunk body isn’t just a baby, it’s baby food.
Vashti’s body is a forward echo of the cyberpunk body. Like Vashti, cyberpunk heroes find freedom and fulfillment in the virtual realm. Like Vashti, their physical bodies pay a price. Due to the affordances of the Machine, Vashti seems largely unaware of her physical body. This sets her apart from cyberpunk heroes. Because they move between the real and the virtual, they are more conscious of the limitations of the flesh. They view their bodies as prisons tethering them to the physical world.
In Neuromancer (1984), cyberpunk’s urtext, William Gibson famously refers to Case’s cyberpunk body as “meat” (6). This has become an enduring and indelible metaphor in cyberpunk culture, perhaps reaching its fullest expression in Pat Cadigan’s Synners (1991). In Synners, the character Visual Mark gets brain implants that enable him to achieve total immersion in cyberspace. After Visual Mark’s consciousness abandons his body, “He lost all awareness of the meat that had been his prison for close to fifty years, and the relief he felt at having laid his burden down was as great as himself” (232).
Meat and pap are both foods, but their resemblance ends there. Pap is feminine. Meat is masculine. Meat is heavy, dark, bloody, animal. It is a dead, inert thing. Meat is carne, carnage, carnal. To call the body meat is to reify the crude appetites of the flesh. In Neuromancer, Case’s sexual desire “belonged…to the meat;” his lust is an “infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read” (Gibson 239). Forster would agree. In A Room with a View, published the year before “The Machine Stops,” he opines, “Love is of the body; not the body, but of the body” (189). Case’s bodily urges are so strong that they supersede vision, the sense that predominates in the virtual realm (Lanier 127). Meanwhile, in “The Machine Stops,” Vashti is sexless. Her sense organs are blunted, not by her corporeality, but by her reliance on the Machine.
In Technologies of the Gendered Body, Anne Balsamo uses four characters from Pat Cadigan’s Synners to map “four different versions of cyberpunk embodiment: the marked body, the disappearing body, the laboring body, and the repressed body” (140). Visual Mark represents the disappearing body. The repressed body is Gabe, a character who is addicted to the safety of cyberspace simulations and fearful of the consequences of embodied experience. Gina represents the marked body. She is marked by her Blackness, her doomed love for Mark, and her wrath. The laboring body is Gabe’s daughter Sam, a hacker who builds a chip reader that runs on her own bodily energy. Balsamo argues that the four types of cyberpunk embodiment are gendered. The male body is repressed or disappearing. The female body is marked or laboring. She then invokes Donna Haraway’s “cyborgian figuration of gender differences, whereby the female body is coded as a body-in-connection and the male body as a body-in-isolation” (144).
Vashti and Kuno invert the gender roles Balsamo identifies in her analysis of Synners. Vashti displays both Mark and Gabe’s versions of cyberpunk embodiment. Materially, she is the disappearing body, disregarding her physical form in favor of complete immersion in the Machine. Behaviorally, she is the repressed body, disgusted by her son’s physicality and terrified of direct experience. Conversely, Kuno has more in common with Gina and Sam. He is marked by his physical strength and his hair. He labors to escape the bonds of the Machine.
Whether Vashti and Kuno confirm or confound Haraway’s own cyborgian coding of gender is another matter. Which of them is more connected? Which is more isolated? According to Seegert, “The Machine Stops” is fundamentally about the battle between rival modes of connection: “that of machinery and tele-technology” and that of “gross bodily connection through the flesh (34). By virtue of her connection with the Machine, Vashti is in constant contact with thousands, yet lives alone in a featureless cell. Kuno seeks and finds physical connection outside the world of the Machine, yet he is a social pariah.
The gender subversion of “The Machine Stops” does not end there. As a woman, Vashti is an unlikely cyberpunk progenitor. Andrew Ross describes classic cyberpunk as a “baroque edifice of adolescent male fantasies” (145). Fred Pfeil argues that most cyberpunk literature is “stuck in a masculinist frame” (89). According to Veronica Hollinger, cyberpunk fantasies primarily speak to “young white males with access to computer hardware” (126). Classic cyberpunk heroes are marginalized, alienated loners who live on the edge of society. In that sense, Kuno is more cyberpunk than his mother, who is achingly mainstream. Yet Kuno spurns all things cyber. Silvana Caporaletti notes that the character of Kuno has been credited with inspiring a different science fiction archetype, that of the alienated hero who rebels against a totally mechanized or automated society, as in Logan’s Run, THX 1138, and Metropolis (44).
Forster’s descriptions of Vashti’s body and physical environment are much more vivid than the images conveyed by the Machine. When Vashti speaks to Kuno through the Machine, his image is not clear enough for her to discern his emotions. The Machine mediates everything Vashti sees, hears, smells, tastes, and touches. It provides a “good enough” but unnuanced facsimile of the real. Her cell is “flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons”—buttons for food, medicine, clothing, music, and calling friends. She has a “hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid” (135). Vashti can access everything she wants without leaving the comfort of her room. Living this way, she develops a “horror of direct experience” (138). She finds the prospect of actually seeing, hearing, or touching another person unbearable. In a pivotal scene, she loses her balance, then angrily scolds a woman for “barbarically” putting out a hand to keep her from falling (140).
Classic cyberpunk stories like Neuromancer and Synners brim with drugs, sex, and danger. Their real worlds are comparably hypersensory and hallucinatory to their virtual worlds—if less consensual (Gibson 51). In Ernest Cline’s post-cyberpunk book Ready Player One (2011), the veracity gap between the virtual and the real in “The Machine Stops” is inverted. Cline’s protagonist Wade finds the real world “washed out and blurry” compared to the virtual (299). Wade is more self conscious than a true cyberpunk hero. Anxious that spending so much time in virtual reality is negatively impacting his physique, Wade avoids mirrors and adopts a punishing fitness regimen. He reflects:
Standing there, under the bleak fluorescents of my tiny one-room apartment, there was no escaping the truth. In real life, I was nothing but an antisocial hermit. A recluse. A pale-skinned pop culture-obsessed geek. An agoraphobic shut-in, with no real friends, family, or genuine human contact. I was just another sad, lost, lonely soul, wasting his life on a glorified videogame.309
Pale and alone, jacked into a virtual reality from a small, brightly lit room, Wade is a neurotic after-image of Vashti.
When I first read “The Machine Stops,” I found Forster’s notion of a future humanity’s radically changed relationship to the body to be less credible than his visions of videotelephony and the internet. I could not relate to Vashti’s horror of direct experience. Of course this was before the coronavirus pandemic.
Today, reeling through the endless autumn of 2020, I identify with Vashti all too well. As I absorb and enact shelter in place orders and epidemiological guidance, I find my relationship to my body and the bodies around me changed, perhaps forever. A stranger’s proximity, let alone touch, has become intolerable. I can’t bear the thought of resuming my packed commute. When I go grocery shopping, I shy away from anyone who comes near. If someone were to touch me, even by mistake, even to help, I might scream. To protect my body and those of others, I have blunted my senses, by wearing a mask and gloves, by maintaining social distance, and of course by machines.
Writing about “The Machine Stops” in 1997, Silvana Caporaletti describes the fluidity of utopian literature’s connection to reality: “The relation of the utopian text to reality can vary, indeed, with time, because human history and science may develop in directions that narrow the gap between imagination and reality” (32). She then asserts that “The Machine Stops” has become more relevant and significant with time. Writing in the same year, Marcia Bundy Seabury observes that totalitarian dystopias like 1984 now seem “less imminent than Forster’s of satisfied individuals sitting before their personal computers” (61). Of course, this was before the coronavirus pandemic.
Cyberpunk and virtual reality arose a generation ago, during a period of extreme anxiety about our bodies’ vulnerability to the “unprecedented threats of AIDS, cancer, nuclear annihilation, overpopulation, and environmental disasters” (Springer 27). In the 1980s, techno-utopian “beliefs about the technological future ‘life’ of the body [were] complemented by a palpable fear of death and annihilation from uncontrollable and spectacular body threats” (Balsamo 1–2). In such a moment, the opportunity to escape into Vashti’s world, with its absence of discrimination, crime, hunger, illness, labor, and injustice, might have seemed tempting.
In the real world of 2020, the gap between Forster’s imagination and the reality of those with privilege has narrowed considerably. In small, wired-up rooms all over the world, the fortunate have donned cyberpunk bodies. They have abandoned the hazards of meatspace in favor of cyberspace. At the touch of a button, they can summon a delivery service to bring anything they want without leaving the comfort of their room. They continue their work and life by virtual means, attending virtual meetings and happy hours and lectures and birthday parties. They have learned the profound unsexiness of a day spent jacked into endless video conferences. They are increasingly pale and physically weak. They have the illusion of control. And they would do well to remember that their minds belong to the meat, not the Machine.
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