There cannot be many Edwardian writers of fiction who have provided the title for a popular quiz show. But that is certainly the case with E. M. Forster and Only Connect. Noted for his class conscious novels and implicit criticism of contemporary society, Forster often depicts the personal connections as a way of moving forward and the two words of his creed (taken from his 1910 novel Howard’s End) are a rallying cry to bring humanity together for the greater good. It is an epigraph which also has resonance for one of his many short stories The Machine Stops which unusually abandons his general milieu of the genteel classes and takes a look at a supposed future – the theme of connection, however, is still very much in evidence as he examines a world that is literally falling apart.
The original story is a fine example of a strand of dystopian literature such as Orwell’s 1984 or Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It was written as “a counterblast to one of the heavens of H.G. Wells” who took a generally positive view of technological advancement. Forster’s glimpses into a brave new world (sorry – that’s Aldous Huxley… but he too was doing much the same and aiming at similar targets) show a society at the mercy of an all-powerful machine which rules their lives.
Humanity has flown from a disaster on the planet’s surface and now resides underground in the individual cells of a honeycomb structure with everything electronically to hand. It’s an extraordinarily prescient tale that posits our now everyday systems of A.I., the internet, email, Zoom, the Kindle, sat navs, videos (called here cinematophotes) and especially digital voice assistants Alexa/Siri. There are also the concepts of international travel, climate catastrophe, voluntary euthanasia, surrogacy, mental health, regular drug (ab)use and human isolation which Forster throws in for good measure. The narrative has now been turned into a fascinating dramatised audio play by Philip Franks.
The ever excellent Tamsin Grieg takes the lead as musicologist lecturer Vashti – her speciality is the late Australian period – who sits isolated and unruffled communicating via video with her students and her son Kuno (Tok Stephen). He is on the other side of the world and ideologically might as well be on a completely different planet. Whereas his mother adheres to and even worships the machine’s diktats he is that classic figure, the rebel against the system.
In a story within a story sequence, we hear of his visits to the surface and his encounters with those badged “the homeless” – that is those who have uttered blasphemy against the machine and been exiled. Much against her better judgement, Vashti sets out to personally and physically visit her son which means boarding an airship. The one thing Forster seems to have failed to predict accurately is the rise of the aeroplane though it seems to me he got much of the current attendant travel issues spot on. Greig does a good line in paranoia and there’s an interesting encounter with a fellow traveller who has entitlement issues – we’ve all been there.
At just under an hour there’s enough here to keep the listener enthralled though I did think the storyline meandered a bit about two thirds of the way through. It is finally brought back on track as the machine starts to malfunction – not a spoiler because it’s highlighted in the title – and the system crumbles; there’s shades of the Y2K millennium bug panic here. The suggestion is that the small act of making contact between the two lead characters somehow precipitates the dawning of a new era. Forster leaves whatever this altered future holds dangling for the audience to formulate its own conclusion. Perhaps that’s just as well given just how much he got more or less spot on.