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Rat Cities and Beehive Worlds: Density and Design in the Modern City

  • Jon Adams (a1) and Edmund Ramsden (a2)

Nestled among E. M. Forster's careful studies of Edwardian social mores is a short story called “The Machine Stops.” Set many years in the future, it is a work of science fiction that imagines all humanity housed in giant high-density cities buried deep below a lifeless surface. With each citizen cocooned in an identical private chamber, all interaction is mediated through the workings of “the Machine,” a totalizing social system that controls every aspect of human life. Cultural variety has ceded to rigorous organization: everywhere is the same, everyone lives the same life. So hopelessly reliant is humanity upon the efficient operation of the Machine, that when the system begins to fail there is little the people can do, and so tightly ordered is the system that the failure spreads. At the story's conclusion, the collapse is total, and Forster's closing image offers a condemnation of the world they had built, and a hopeful glimpse of the world that might, in their absence, return: “The whole city was broken like a honeycomb. […] For a moment they saw the nations of the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of the untainted sky” (2001: 123). In physically breaking apart the city, there is an extent to which Forster is literalizing the device of the broken society, but it is also the case that the infrastructure of the Machine is so inseparable from its social structure that the failure of one causes the failure of the other. The city has—in the vocabulary of present-day engineers—“failed badly.”

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