E. M. Forster is best known for his exquisite novels, but these two affecting short stories brilliantly combine the fantastical with the allegorical. In ‘The Machine Stops’, humanity has isolated itself beneath the ground, enmeshed in automatic comforts, and, in ‘The Celestial Omnibus’, a young boy takes a trip his parents believe impossible.
The first story in this Penguin pairing is the title story for a reason; rather longer than the second, it’s also rather more famous. Often seen as a prescient story about the insulated and isolated artificiality of C21st life, as it largely reflects on the idea of mediated experience as being better than first-hand experience – another aspect of modern life, arguably, as the intellectual world internalises the idea of second-hand objectivity and as mass-communication allows experience of an event without actual presence (hashtags such as #ICFA, for instance). Whilst good at despicting the extreme end-results of these as ongoing trends, the descriptions are well-written, the humanity of the characters is missing; they’re thin, paper-thin in fact. The Machine Stops is a great read for its ideas, but for any other purposes, I’d leave it aside.
The Celestial Omnibus, on the other hand, is a more interesting, although slimmer, story. It is in dialogue with both a literature of ideas and of innocence, a story about poetry and the imagination, and ironically for a story so layered in learning it is a story about how, sometimes, lack of knowledge is more important than knowledge. Again the characters are pretty simplistic and the way they work together doesn’t really follow logically from each other, but the ideas and imagery of the poem are very effectively conveyed, and the refusal to specify absolutely certain things is incredibly well calculated; indeed, Forster’s use of implication in place of absolute statement is truly brilliant. All in all a fantastic piece of work, even if not well-characterised.