Well. This is happening.
How do you survive the confinement for weeks on end? French aerospace engineer, pilot, and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet, who spent six months in the International Space Station, has, for understandable reasons, been much quoted on his advice for how to manage. Aside from urging on us the essential message of staying at home, catching up on some reading is amongst Monsieur Pesquet’s advice, including revisiting some classics and favourites.
Personally, I have not, as yet, experienced this much-fabled ‘extra free time’ people are speaking of with regard to self isolation. I am very fortunate in not having fallen ill. Though between adjusting to working from home and setting up the family to do likewise, establishing a new routine, wrestling with some relatively new technology, ensuring healthy meals, exercise, and starting to supervise home schooling, chasing my tail has continued. For now. I suspect it won’t be long before the time starts to grow baggy, and I’ll need the discipline not to veg out in front of the telly.
To that end, like many others, I am looking to refresh my reading list. Amongst the many pleasures and other benefits of reading, it keeps you connected. You see the world through the eyes of others; gain insight into their experiences; develop empathy.
You know, my son said yesterday, all this has made me think of The Machine Stops. Ah! So he did read it. I recommended it when he was covering the dystopian novel at school, but wasn’t sure he’d looked at it. It’s actually a long-short story, by E.M. Forster, author of A Room with a View and A Passage to India, amongst others. But The Machine Stops is sci-fi, published, incredibly to me, in 1909.
“Only connect!” is the famous epigraph to his novel Howard’s End, Forster’s exhortation to forge personal connections, to empathise and unite with others across what appear to be divides and barriers between us. The Machine Stops, then, is a warning about what happens when we cease to connect. In it, the human population has lost the ability to live on the Earth’s surface, confined to isolated rooms below ground, essential needs met by a god-like, global ‘Machine’, communicating at a distance by what we may today recognise as video conferencing. Vashti, her body a toothless pulp, for lack of need for muscle and chewing, is content with this world. Her son Kuno, on the other side of the world, is not. Kuno wants more from life, having understood there is a people on the Earth’s surface, seeks a connection with his mother, and senses the Machine is breaking down. The title of the story gives the ending away – but it ends, too, with hope.
Apologies, this all sounds a little grim, and at a time when we’re already getting our heads round the change and uncertainty of recent events. Not to mention future ones. But is it also a positive reminder. Technology can be a threat in replacing face-to-face social contact, but at least it is available for us all to keep in touch. I am going to spend some time tonight getting my Dad to be able to Skype. I think seeing our faces when we call will make a simple difference.
Another quote from E.M. Forster may be timely; it is one I’ll keep in mind whilst supporting my son over the shock of having his high-stakes summer exams suddenly cancelled: “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.“
Stay safe and keep connecting.