Monday, December 10, 2018

EM Forster, HG Wells, Tom Stoppard, and the Meaning of Life

Annamaria on Monday

Where to begin?

Chronologically perhaps. But my chronology—not theirs.

Somewhere around fifty years ago, while living in Brooklyn Heights and working on Wall Street, I was on a packed subway—going to work, standing up.  The train stopped somewhere under the East River.  It was summer, and the NYC subways were not air-conditioned in those days.  Sweltering! This incident was a common occurrence, and that day it lasted much longer than usual.  It would not have been at all memorable, but it sticks in my mind because of the book in my hand and the story I was reading—“The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster.  That fiction, published in 1909, seemed, at that moment, to have everything to do with what I was experiencing.


If you don’t know the story, you can find it here:

It tells of a futuristic society in which the bulk of the human population live in tiny cells under the surface of the earth, where a machine takes care of all their needs.  It provides music and entertainment.  And the means to communicate with people half a world away through what reads (in this hundred+year-old story!) a whole lot like our FaceTime.  Food also comes through the machine (FreshDirect, perhaps?).    The main characters are a rebellious young man and his mother.  He wants to fight the machine.  She believes—as most people in the story do—in the omnipotence of the Machine.  Then the machine stops.  (Like the subway train I was on!)  And to survive, the people in Forster’s story have to fight their way to surface to survive.  You can see why I never forgot any of this.

The story is a masterpiece of what was science fiction a hundred years ago.  Scholars believe that Forster wrote the story as a response H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, in which there is a clash is between good and evil.  Forster, instead, foresaw a future where the central conflict would be between mankind and machines.

Where Wells comes into my thinking today is not with The Time Machine, but with his War of the Worlds.  That brilliant novel imagines machines long left buried underground by aliens.  The creatures from outer space return to dig up their technology and wreck havoc on humanity.  The Martians lose that war, defeated—not by human beings, however brave. It is the earth’s microbes that infect the invaders and kill them. The humans, therefore, survive.

Microbes cast as the saviors of humanity!

Of late, my beloved science section of The New York Times has published a few articles about research into the actions of microbes on humans.  We have known for some time about how they can cause disease.  But nowadays, it’s looking as if the flora in our guts might have as much to do with our behavior as does our upbringing or the rules of our religions.  Data has begun to show that the microscopic critters in our intestines might be the source of happiness, optimism, crankiness—all manner of motivational emotions. Certainly, they play a huge role in digestion, taking the food we eat and turning into new substances that profoundly affect our wellbeing—for good or for ill.  Which microbes we have in our guts determines what chemicals go into our bloodstreams and therefore into our brains.  This little creature takes in carrots and gives you Zoloft.  That one turns carrots into Valium.  Or something like that. 


Which brings me to this past week, when I had the pleasure and the privilege of seeing Tom Stoppard’s latest play, The Hard Problem at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center.  The main conflict in his story is between scientific researchers who hold two opposing prejudices.  Some believe that the brain is all we humans have, and in a more or less mechanical way, it determines behavior.  Others of Stoppard’s characters hold that there are greater forces, outside our human “mechanical” brains and the lust for self-interest.  They believe in God, for instance.  Or altruism.  Or coincidence as an active determinant of human connection.  Forces not explained by the mere clicking of synaptic endings.

In the midst of the play’s action, one of the characters describes the role of microbes that live in cows. As is always the case, when my brain comes up against Tom Stoppard’s, I have a really hard time keeping up.  I wish I had the script to go by in describing what the woman in the play said.  Stoppard may have gotten this part of the story from an actual occurrence from nature, or maybe he made up something that only sounds real.    Anyway, what the actress said went something like this:  a microbe that lives in a cow needs to stay in the cow to reproduce.  But it comes out in the cow’s poop.  To get back inside the cow, the microbe infects an ant and lays its eggs inside the ant. The “diseased” ant then finds itself compelled to relentlessly climb up and down blades of grass and in the process leave some of the eggs at the top of the grass, which the cow then eats.

I think I have this part of the play right.  It all went by very fast in the theater.  But—the point certainly was that the microbe is doing some pretty fancy maneuvering to get what it wants: back inside the cow.  Real or fictional (or botched up by me), the process sounds quite plausible, given the strange ways in which all kinds of critters on this planet control one another.

And it is especially fascinating since scientists are toying with the possibility that microbes, might—in some extremely complicated ways—be in charge of us.

Where do you think we humans all fall in this story?  Are we the cow?  The ant? Or the microbe?

Are we controlling the machines?  Or are they controlling us?  

Most important: Will the microbes be able to save our planet? 


  1. I've been a Stoppard fan ever since reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead sometime in the 1960s. I particularly enjoyed their game of Questions which reminds me in a roundabout way of contemporary political discourse - lots of words, but no answers.

  2. Yup, Stan, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was wha first hooked me on Stoppard. I have seen them all here in NYC. And I own "Shakespeare in Love." Not even Gwyneth Paltrow could spoil that for me! In fact Stoppard's genius made even GP seem like a plausible human being.

  3. I'm a schizophrenic: all the evidence I've seen (there's SO much we still don't understand) leads me to believe that the universe is one large machine and free will is an illusion, but 'me' would get depressed thinking that were true (if so, what's the POINT???), so 'me' has chosen to live believing (or acting as if) free will DOES really exist (and, hence, the universe is not one large machine). Schizophrenic, I'm of two minds.

    I vividly remember when the idea of a "billiard ball" universe first sparked to me, while in high school, and I actually became quite depressed for a week or two. But then, the bacteria in my gut said, "Enough of this BS, be happy!" and I decided to ignore what I believed and believe in what made me happy.

    Better living through schizophrenia and gut bacteria...

    1. And ever since, EvKa, you have been perfect! In my eyes anyway.
      Every once in a while, I have thought that if I wanted to a really serious person, I would have to take a darker position about the world. But I can never bring myself to do it. I suppose this could be because my microbes--no matter what I feed them--insist on producing happy, optimistic juice.

      All that dark stuff is in me somewhere. It must be, because it does come out in my stories. It just doesn't wipe the smile off my face. I sound like Alfred E. Newman. And I don't care.

  4. Hmm. A very interesting post for you to put up, Sis, as you did so on the day of my colonoscopy. I guess we’ll have to ask Barbara if she notices any changes in my behavior as the result of my banishing those pesky microbes in prep for today.

    1. My brother, given our roles here as sibling rivals, I guess I should say, “Fingers crosses for some improvements.” :))

    2. She's already tried that until her knuckles turned white.

  5. Replies
    1. I can’t resist this, Michael: Or a new definition of s#ithead.