The Antidote to Dystopia

By Matthew Cheney

Virginia Woolf pegged "on or about December 1910" as the time when "human character changed," but when it comes to changes in human character, it's dangerous to get too precise. 1910 was certainly a good year for changes of character (Halley's Comet came by, Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy went off to immortality, Woolf's friend Roger Fry organized an important exhibition of Post-Impressionist painters), but my imagination is sparked as much by two items from the year before—items that are certainly noteworthy on their own but particularly intriguing when seen together. 1909 was the year that E.M. Forster's dystopian story "The Machine Stops" appeared in The Oxford and Cambridge Review, and it was the year that a twenty-two-year-old woman, Alice Ramsay, set out with two sisters-in-law and a friend to drive across the United States.

It took Alice Ramsay fifty-nine days to drive from New York City to San Francisco, becoming the first woman to lead a transcontinental journey by automobile. This was not exactly something a woman was expected to be able to do. There were over 100,000 cars in the United States by 1909, but they were generally seen as the toys of men. In More Than Petticoats: Remarkable New Jersey Women, Lynn Wenzel and Carol J. Binkowski cite a doctor who claimed that "a speed of 15 or 20 miles an hour in a motor car causes [women] acute mental suffering, nervous excitement, and circulatory disturbances . . . extending into the night and causing insomnia."

Ramsay had long been fascinated by technology, and her husband bought her a car because it seemed safer than traveling by horse (though he never learned to drive himself). Her driving skills so impressed a sales manager for the Maxwell-Briscoe car company that he proposed the idea of the trip to her, recognizing a great opportunity for publicity that would not only bring attention to his company, but would prove that women could be great drivers—and thus open up a much larger customer base.

Ramsay was not the only woman to find freedom and joy in automobile driving, as Curt McConnell has shown in A Reliable Car and a Woman Who Knows It: The First Coast-to-Coast Auto Trips. Motorcars became a vivid symbol of the growing freedom of the "New Woman." Not that everybody wanted women to be new—McConnell notes that on the day Ramsay began her trip, the New York Times reported that a bishop "bitterly attacked the new woman in her efforts to do man's work, and denounced the woman suffrage campaign as a 'hysterical clamor employed in the pursuit of this chimera.'"

Later that year, E.M. Forster told the story of a quite different woman in "The Machine Stops"—Forster's Vashti lives under the surface of a poisonous, deserted Earth in an automated room exactly like everyone else's automated rooms. She is a woman beholden to technology and contemptuous of human contact beyond the telephone and television that allow her to communicate with thousands of other people ("in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously"). The Machine is the force of automation, the interconnections of technology that have convinced nearly everyone that isolation is preferable to social interaction between actual bodies. Vashti's son, Kuno, rebels, and his curiosity carries him to the surface of the Earth, but he is not an adventure hero—as the title states, the Machine stops, but Kuno does not cause the breakdown. Forster puts him in the story as a foil for Vashti and to give us one person who is not bewildered and horrified when the technology falls apart beyond repair, though he is no more able to save himself than anyone else is. The apocalyptic ending gains a glimmer of hope from Kuno's statement that people have found ways to live on the surface ("I have seen them, spoken to them, loved them. They are hiding in the mist and the ferns until our civilization stops.") and that hope is buttressed by the narration, which is not entirely transparent, and so suggests some literate survivors long after the events are complete.

Two stories of technology and society, one true and one speculative. For Alice Ramsay, technology became a liberation; for Forster's Vashti, technology created a prison. The twin views battled their way through the rest of the century and haunt us still. The wonders and terrors of innovation had danced together at least since the moment when human beings captured fire, but it was the century of the two world wars that made dystopia the favored mode. In the latter years of the nineteenth century, utopian writing was all the rage, but "The Machine Stops" reminds us of the horrors writers would imagine to suggest the progress of horror in their own time—We, Brave New World, 1984. . .

To a twenty-first century reader, "The Machine Stops" is fascinating because it seems to predict certain elements of the age of the internet—we can, in fact, now communicate with thousands of people at once and maintain friendships over vast distances and with people we have never met in person. Naysayers fear that the computer-addicted are losing all sense of human contact in much the way that Vashti did, and Forster's vision of a world of hyper-isolation does not seem entirely impossible. His future seems to be one that people chose, a dystopia they let happen, and the idea is an unsettling one for anybody who spends lots of time in front of a computer screen every day.

The difference between the etiolated civilization of Forster's world and the joyful optimism created by Alice Ramsay's journey is a difference not so much of attitudes toward technology as it is a difference of impulse. Vashti lives in a shrunken world, a world reduced to the size of human perception. Alice Ramsay set out to expand the possibilities available to her, and she and everyone who pushed against the prejudices and expectations of society helped make the task of living a more pleasant one for everyone who followed.

Perhaps these two items from 1909 had nothing to do with a change in human character, and we can leave that to December 1910. Perhaps "The Machine Stops" and Alice Ramsay's journey illustrate elements of human character that have been more or less present throughout history—the desire for freedom, the struggle against constraint. Forster's great insight was that constraint is not always imposed by evil leaders; it can result from what we think we want, it can sneak up on us, it can come from everywhere all at once. "The Machine Stops" predicts not just the internet, but also Huxley's Brave New World and Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish.

One of the attractions of dystopian stories is that they offer opportunities for rebellion, even if, in the end, the rebels are overcome by the powers that be. It's the same attraction offered by a story such as Alice Ramsay's—a story of a person striving not just against the odds, but for new ways of living. It's the antidote to dystopia. New worlds do need bravery, after all, but they need the bravery of possibility to overcome oppressions large and small, visible and invisible. Such bravery never gets to rest, alas, because new worlds quickly grow old, and yesterday's possibilities harden into today's constraints.

Alice Ramsay was a pioneer, but the tool of her liberation, the automobile, has become an oppressor in our day, filling the veins of the Earth with asphalt and addicting us all to fuel refined from the debris of lost worlds. We need, as always, new pioneers. Forster's story ends with a sentence of both horror and hope: "For a moment they saw the nations of the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of the untainted sky."

The ever-present challenge to human character is to see the untainted sky before joining the nations of the dead.


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including One Story, Locus, SF Site, Failbetter.com, and the anthologies Logorrhea and Interfictions. He is the series editor for Best American Fantasy from Prime Books, and he writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. Read more of his columns in our archives.