The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster

The best thing I read today was a short story by E.M. Forster titled “The Machine Stops.” I found out about it while reading Atul Gawande’s tribute to Oliver Sacks.

“The Machine Stops” is a story about over-reliance on technology,in which people live alone in small podlike rooms in a honeycomb of vast underground cities spread across the globe. The physical comforts of food, clothing, and shelter are all taken care of by the global Machine. We meet a female protagonist named Vashti, who has to simply press a button to receive food or listen to music or summon a hot-bath :

The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms. Seated in her armchair she spoke, while they in their armchairs heard her, fairly well, and saw her, fairly well. She opened with a humorous account of music in the pre Mongolian epoch, and went on to describe the great outburst of song that followed the Chinese conquest. Remote and primæval as were the methods of I-San-So and the Brisbane school, she yet felt (she said) that study of them might repay the musicians of today: they had freshness; they had, above all, ideas. Her lecture, which lasted ten minutes, was well received, and at its conclusion she and many of her audience listened to a lecture on the sea; there were ideas to be got from the sea; the speaker had donned a respirator and visited it lately. Then she fed, talked to many friends, had a bath, talked again, and summoned her bed.

And how Vashti’s son named Kuno wanted to meet his mother face-to-face:

The Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That is why I want you to come. Pay me a visit, so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my mind.

Who knew that a story published more than 100 years ago would be so prescient of the world that is today–with social media pulling us at every angle, allowing Sacks to lament how it can absorb people, “to the exclusion of everything else, throughout their waking hours.”

The story reminds me of 1984, Blade Runner, and Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel.” It’s definitely worth reading. You can follow the link or purchase a Kindle edition of the short story for $0.99 here.

Roberto Bolaño’s Mexican Manifesto

While not as enthralling as his other story “Labyrinth” that I’ve profiled before, Roberto Bolaño’s short story “Mexican Manifesto” was nevertheless an interesting read. The setting is of a couple who goes to a number of saunas in Mexico and partakes in experiences of a certain sort:

In every public bath, there tends to be a fight from time to time. We never saw or heard any there. The clients, conditioned by some unknown mechanism, respected and obeyed every word of the orphan’s instructions. Also, to be fair, there weren’t very many people, and that’s something I’ll never be able to explain, since it was a clean place, relatively modern, with individual saunas for taking steam baths, bar service in the saunas, and, above all, cheap. There, in Sauna 10, I saw Laura naked for the first time, and all I could do was smile and touch her shoulder and say I didn’t know which valve to turn to make the steam come out.

The saunas, though it might be more precise to call them private rooms, were a set of two tiny chambers connected by a glass door. In the first, there was usually a divan—an old divan reminiscent of psychoanalysis and bordellos—a folding table, and a coatrack; the second chamber was the actual steam bath, with a hot and cold shower and a bench of azulejo tiles against the wall, beneath which were hidden the tubes that released the steam. Moving from one vestibule to the next was extraordinary, especially if the steam was already so thick that we couldn’t see each other. Then we would open the door and head into the chamber with the divan, where everything was clear, and behind us, like the filaments of a dream, clouds of steam slipped by and quickly disappeared. Lying there, holding hands, we would listen or try to listen to the barely perceptible sounds of the gym while our bodies cooled. Practically freezing, submerged in silence, we would finally hear the purr welling up through the floor and the walls, the catlike whir of hot pipes and boilers that stoked the business from some secret place in the building.

I’m glad The New Yorker made this story un-paywalled.

Tessa Hadley’s Short Story “Experience”

Tessa Hadley’s short story “Experience” is my fiction read of the week. It’s about a twenty-eight year old narrator, Laura, who moves into her “friend of a friend” Hana’s house while Hana moves away for a while. Rummaging through the attic one day, Laura discovers Hana’s diary. One day, Hana’s former lover, Julian, pays a visit and things escalate (but not in the way I expected):

I’d never have picked Julian out as a sensuous type if I hadn’t read Hana’s diary; he seemed too busy and prosaic, without the abstracted dreamy edges I’d always imagined in people who gave themselves over to their erotic lives. And yet, because of the secret things I knew about him, I was fixated on him the whole time I watched him cook, and then afterward, while we sat opposite each other eating at the little table he pulled up to my armchair. I told myself that, if he left without anything happening, then I had lost my chance and I would die. I wasn’t melting or longing for him to touch me or anything like that; the desire wasn’t in my body but wedged in my mind, persistent and burrowing. I didn’t even like Julian much. But liking people and even loving them seemed to me now like ways of keeping yourself safe, and I didn’t want to be safe. I wanted to cross the threshold and be initiated into real life. My innocence was a sign of something maimed or unfinished in me.

The ending is a bit anti-climactic, which is something I’ve come to expect from a lot of these fictional stories in The New Yorker.

Roberto Bolaño’s Labyrinth

Labyrinth

Take a look at the photo above. It’s a real photograph, but in a story published in The New Yorker last month, Roberto Bolaño creates a (fictional) story for each of the individuals seen in the photo. He goes in depth hypothesizing on how the characters are named, how they are dressed, why they are or aren’t looking at the camera, what’s going on in the background, and ultimately into behavior of the characters. The title of the story is “Labyrinth,” and it is fascinating:

The photo was taken in winter or autumn, or maybe at the beginning of spring, but certainly not in summer. Who are the most warmly dressed? J.-J. Goux, Sollers, and Marc Devade, without question: they’re wearing jackets over their turtleneck sweaters, and thick jackets, too, from the look of them, especially J.-J.’s and Devade’s. Kristeva is a case apart: her turtleneck sweater is light, more elegant than practical, and she’s not wearing anything over it. Then we have Guyotat. He might be as warmly dressed as the four I’ve already mentioned. He doesn’t seem to be, but he’s the only one wearing three layers: the black leather jacket, the shirt, and the striped T-shirt. You could imagine him wearing those clothes even if the photo had been taken in summer. It’s quite possible. All we can say for sure is that Guyotat is dressed as if he were on his way somewhere else. As for Carla Devade, she’s in between. Her blouse, whose collar is showing over the top of her sweater, looks soft and warm; the sweater itself is casual, but of good quality, neither very heavy nor very light. Finally, we have Jacques Henric and Marie-Thérèse Réveillé. Henric is clearly not a man who feels the cold, although his Canadian lumberjack’s shirt looks warm enough. And the least warmly dressed of all is Marie-Thérèse Réveillé. Under her light, knitted V-neck sweater there are only her breasts, cupped by a black or white bra.

All of them, more or less warmly dressed, captured by the camera at that moment in 1977 or thereabouts, are friends, and some of them are lovers, too. For a start, Sollers and Kristeva, obviously, and the two Devades, Marc and Carla. Those, we might say, are the stable couples. And yet there are certain features of the photo (something about the arrangement of the objects, the petrified, musical rhododendron, two of its leaves invading the space of the ficus like clouds within a cloud, the grass growing in the planter, which looks more like fire than grass, the everlasting leaning whimsically to the left, the glasses in the center of the table, well away from the edges, except for Kristeva’s, as if the other members of the group were worried they might fall) that suggest a more complex and subtle web of relations among these men and women.

If you’re a fan of fiction, don’t miss it.

The Lottery in Babylon by Jorge Luis Borges

“The Lottery in Babylon” is a fantastic short story written by Jorge Luis Borges. In the story, an unnamed narrator recounts how a so-called lottery (run by “The Company”) influenced the society in which he lived. He begins his tale:

My father would tell how once, long ago–centuries? years?–the lottery in Babylon was a game played by commoners. He would tell (though whether this is true or not, I cannot say) how barbers would take a man’s copper coins and give back rectangles made of bone or parchment and adorned with symbols. Then, in broad daylight, a drawing would be held; those smiled upon by fate would, with no further corroboration by chance, win coins minted of silver. The procedure, as you can see, was rudimentary.

But there was no excitement in this kind of lottery. Some would win for the cost of coin. But they were ultimately unsuccessful. So what happened next? Someone suggested the introduction of unlucky draws. At first, the penalty was a fine. But as you read the story, you’ll understand that those who didn’t or couldn’t pay up for being unlucky were sent to jail. And then:

Some time after this, the announcements of the numbers drawn began to leave out the lists of fines and simply print the days of prison assigned to each losing number. 

And the depravity of the Lottery escalates further. If people can be made to pay fines, why can’t they be sentenced to death? But the narrator provides the following introspective:

If the Lottery is an intensification of chance, a periodic infusion of chaos into the cosmos, then is it not appropriate that chance intervene inevery aspect of the drawing, not just one? Is it not ludicrous that chance should dictate a person’s death while the circumstances of that death–whether private or public, whether drawn out for an hour or a century–shouldnot be subject to chance? Those perfectly reasonable objections finally prompted sweeping reform…

You should read the story to find out what happens at the end. The narrator’s admission leaves you deep in thought…

This short story by Jorge Luis Borges is one of the best I’ve read in a long time. 

Franz Kafka’s “A Message from the Emperor”

A new translation of Franz Kafka’s “A Message from the Emperor” appears in The New York Review of Books. I have never read this short (really short) story before, but I found it haunting. The new translation is by Mark Harman, who writes:

Kafka’s “A Message From the Emperor” made its first appearance in the Prague Zionist journal Die Selbstwehr (“Self-defense”) in September 1919, the year the thirty-six-year-old Kafka composed his famous letter to his father. Hauntingly oblique, the story weaves together child-like hopefulness and stoical resignation, metaphysical yearning and psychological insight, a seemingly Chinese tale and covert Jewish themes…

Here’s Mark Harman’s new translation of “A Message from the Emperor,” in its entirety:

A Message from the Emperor

The emperor—it is said—sent to you, the one apart, the wretched subject, the tiny shadow that fled far, far from the imperial sun, precisely to you he sent a message from his deathbed. He bade the messenger kneel by his bed, and whispered the message in his ear. So greatly did he cherish it that he had him repeat it into his ear. With a nod of his head he confirmed the accuracy of the messenger’s words. And before the entire spectatorship of his death—all obstructing walls have been torn down and the great figures of the empire stand in a ring upon the broad, soaring exterior stairways—before all these he dispatched the messenger. The messenger set out at once; a strong, an indefatigable man; thrusting forward now this arm, now the other, he cleared a path though the crowd; every time he meets resistance he points to his breast, which bears the sign of the sun; and he moves forward easily, like no other. But the crowds are so vast; their dwellings know no bounds. If open country stretched before him, how he would fly, and indeed you might soon hear the magnificent knocking of his fists on your door. But instead, how uselessly he toils; he is still forcing his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he overcome them; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to fight his way down the steps; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to cross the courtyard and, after the courtyard, the second enclosing outer palace, and again stairways and courtyards, and again a palace, and so on through thousands of years; and if he were to burst out at last through the outermost gate—but it can never, never happen—before him still lies the royal capital, the middle of the world, piled high in its sediment. Nobody reaches through here, least of all with a message from one who is dead. –You, however, sit at your window and dream of the message when evening comes.

Compare Karman’s translation to this version (via):

The Emperor—so they say—has sent a message, directly from his death bed, to you alone, his pathetic subject, a tiny shadow which has taken refuge at the furthest distance from the imperial sun. He ordered the herald to kneel down beside his bed and whispered the message in his ear. He thought it was so important that he had the herald speak it back to him. He confirmed the accuracy of verbal message by nodding his head. And in front of the entire crowd of those witnessing his death—all the obstructing walls have been broken down, and all the great ones of his empire are standing in a circle on the broad and high soaring flights of stairs—in front of all of them he dispatched his herald. The messenger started off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he runs into resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forwards easily, unlike anyone else. But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvellous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. Never will he win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards through the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, through stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years. And if he finally burst through the outermost door—but that can never, never happen—the royal capital city, the centre of the world, is still there in front of him, piled high and full of sediment. No one pushes his way through here, certainly not someone with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window and dream of that message when evening comes.

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Which version do you prefer? I actually prefer the second version, as it seems to give a better perspective of the vastness of the Castle. But what of the interpretation of that ending?

And oh, if you’re wondering why the story is so short, it’s because it originally appeared in Kafka’s longer short story, “The Great Wall of China.”