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Weaving the Material and the Immaterial

Victorian and Edwardian Virtual Reality: from Stoker to Forster

La transmission virtuelle et l’hyperréalité de Stoker à Forster
Catherine Lanone


On s’imagine que le réseau de télécommunications actuel est né de l’imaginaire du vingtième siècle, mais il hantait déjà l’ère victorienne, comme en témoigne un dessin satirique de George Du Maurier. Dans Dracula, cette télécommunication prend une forme ambivalente, puisque le comte peut s’emparer à distance de l’esprit de Mina et s’en servir pour décoder les plans de ses poursuivants. Van Helsing parvient alors à inverser la transmission, comme s’il s’agissait d’un système radio qui permet d’espionner le vampire. C’est grâce à la technique de pointe moderne (télégraphe, machine à écrire, phonographe) que l’on peut mettre en échec le comte et son inquiétante télépathie. Au contraire, en 1909, « The Machine Stops » de E. M. Forster vient avec une étonnante précision créer un futur où règnent les réseaux de télécommunications, mais où la dépendance technologique et l’isolement sont de mise. La nouvelle dystopique interroge l’évolution vers la prothèse technologique, prônant au contraire le retour au corps et au contact, opposant au culte du progrès l’éthique de la compassion.

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1Global information society may seem a late twentieth and twenty-first century creation, but the Victorian and the Edwardian eras were haunted by premonitions of today’s technological artefacts. In 1878, for instance, George du Maurier published in Punch a cartoon featuring a long-distance visual telephone. It represents a father and mother looking at a huge screen placed above the mantelpiece; the father is speaking into a tube, communicating with his daughter who holds the receiver onscreen—she is in the midst of a game of badminton in Ceylon. The mother is quietly knitting, suggesting that such calls are a routine habit. Ivy Roberts asserts that the drawing must be contextualized and read ‘as a satire of Edison’s public image, against technological innovation’ (Roberts 1). The resounding title, ‘EDISON’S TELEPHONOSCOPE (TRANSMITS LIGHT AS WELL AS SOUND)’ (in Roberts 2), is meant to mock scientific hubris rather than forecast potential achievement; yet there is no denying that, for all its satirical purpose, the cartoon prefigures modern technological networks. The fanciful scene may be taken as a performative blueprint for today’s TV screens and instant telecommunications. The cartoon both anticipates scientific discovery and challenges it, as if foreseeing the uneasy implications of the posthuman network. Just like the cartoon, literature implemented models of telecommunication, hovering between fascination and dread, long before the technology was actually invented. Among the turn-of-the-century texts that engage with disembodied telecommunications, we shall focus on two emblematic instances that foreground the desire for, and fear of, instant communication. We shall therefore study how Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) first explores multiple connections, under the guise of archaism and telepathy, and then pits the magic transfer of information against the web of modern technology. On the contrary, E. M. Forster’s only foray into science fiction, his 1909 short story ‘The Machine Stops’, is both visionary and extremely wary of the technological ‘perfect gridwork’ (Hayles 272), where a malfunction or virus may crash the system, signifying ‘the eruption of chaos into this informatted world’ (Hayles 272). As we shall see, Forster’s posthuman network foreshadows Ulrich Beck’s risk society.

2‘When and where did information get constructed as disembodied medium?’ Katherine Hayles muses in her landmark book on the posthuman (Hayles 50). A significant version of disembodied telecommunication appears in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The count’s ability to master telepathic exchange blends atavistic regression, fantasmatic transfer and long-distance communication. For Nicholas Royle, ‘the emergence of “telepathy”’ is an unlikely outcome of the Darwinian upheaval, and it must thereby be ‘linked to the crisis of Christianity in the Victorian age’ (Royle 3). It must also be connected to the sweeping technical paradigm shifts that characterized the Victorian age and ‘to numerous other tele-phenomena; it is part of the establishment of tele-culture in general’ (Royle 5), a revolution that includes ‘the railway, telegraphy, photography, the telephone and gramophone’ (Royle 5). Dracula does not simply revive the Gothic mode of excess and ontological instability, crossing the boundaries between life and death with the archaic ‘Undead’ seeking to take over Britain. It also experiments with the body as receiver and transmitter, using the mind as a spying device to instantly collect distant information. Mind-reading and mesmerism are staple features of fin-de-siècle fiction, but it is the truly long-distance quality of the call which is worthy of attention here. Dracula is able to master Mina’s mind from afar; as he lies hidden in the hull of a boat to escape from Britain, the vampire turns his coffin into a telecommunication box, as Van Helsing suggests in his peculiar, erratic English:

In the trance of three days ago the Count sent her his spirit to read her mind; or more like he took her to see him in his earth-box in the ship with water rushing, just as it go free at rise and set of sun. He learn then that we are here, for she have more to tell in her open life with eyes to see ears to hear than he, shut, as he is, in his coffin-box. (Stoker 294)

  • 1 For Arata, Dracula departs from the Gothic tradition by bringing the vampire to London, where he ca (...)

3Here, Mina’s body is not so much possessed in sexual terms as turned into a radio-system, a receiver and a transmitter, a coherer that Dracula can summon at will, which he can tune in and out of. Dracula draws her into his own box, and in Maud Ellmann’s terms, he can ‘[ventriloquize] Mina Harker by remote control’ (Ellmann 20). A viral agent of contamination, Dracula seeks to infect the nation: indeed, for Stephen Arata, Dracula embodies ‘the late-Victorian nightmare of reverse colonization’ (Arata 465).1 Dracula also possesses skills that both anticipate and bypass technology; the body is the machine that allows instant connection.

  • 2 In La Pharmacie de Platon, Jacques Derrida explores writing as pharmakon, playing on polysemy (pois (...)

4Among the many fears that the Count embodies, therefore, is the sense that new technologies might entail loss of control, and might affect the body or be relocated in the mind. Consequently, it is up to those new technologies to overcome the danger and provide an antidote or pharmakon.2 Machines, so to speak, replicate Dracula’s uncanny skills. They allow the persistence of a residual trace, the obverse of the vampire’s archaic, uncanny survival, as Ellmann astutely points out: the phonograph and the telephone are ‘technologies in which the “undead” voices acquire a technological afterlife’ (20). Machinic structures like trains, telegraphs, typewriters and phonographs implicitly connect to create a network of information that counters the Count’s hegemonic assault. Though Dracula attempts to destroy letters and the phonograph’s cylinders, he is no match for Mina’s wondrous portable typewriter and her strategy of making copies, the counterpart of vampiric duplication through blood and contamination. Mina is extremely grateful for the portable typewriter, without which she could not collect and reproduce the oral statements and written documents that must be pieced together, as if devising less a complex text than an experimental chemical formula that will prove a pharmakon.

5Because she can recite train timetables, read and write shorthand, piece together the documents that she has typed, Mina becomes a model of efficiency, of ‘techno-performance’ (Page 95). Leanne Page considers the typewriter as a kind of ‘hypermediating media’ (Page 109): it proves to be ‘the technology through which all other technologies in the novel (stenography, phonographic records, and telegraphed messages) are produced and made accessible to the characters and to the reader’ (Page 109). The circulation of texts and voices matches the circulation of tainted blood.

6Even more striking than Dracula’s skills, perhaps, or than technological duplication, is Mina’s ability to enter the vampire’s mind at sunset and sunrise, a process of reverse penetration. At such specific liminal moments, she is hypnotized by Van Helsing, so that the communication system may be switched on and off almost at will. The Professor may then ask her where and when s/he is, reversing the bat’s system of echolocation to track down the count. There is a kind of becoming-machine, here, which is very different from most of the literary depictions of dystopian posthuman grafting of man and machine. The praise of technology contrasts with the enslaving of (wo)man by machine, as instanced by the plight of Tess in Thomas Hardy’s 1891 eponymous novel (her body vibrates and blends with the threshing machine that entraps it, to the point of exhaustion), or the ominous satiric vision of man’s increasing addiction to machines in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon.

7In Dracula there is no prosthetic piece of machinery added to the female body, but a seamless transmutation of the mind into a transmitter. This fluid projection is stressed by the play on rhythmical repetition (the alliteration in [s], ‘a steady swirl of water softly running’, the use of short, often monosyllabic words and the echo ‘roll’/’rowlocks’). Mina’s intense sensory impressions rely not upon sight but hearing. The body becomes an antenna recording a series of distant signals, composing a soundscape including creaking oars, waves, footsteps, ropes or chains, and the cries of men echoing like waves of sound, ‘near and far’:

29 October.—This is written in the train from Varna to Galatz. . . .  At last her answer came:—

‘I can see nothing; we are still; there are no waves lapping, but only a steady swirl of water softly running against the hawser. I can hear men’s voices calling, near and far, and the roll and creak of oars in the rowlocks. A gun is fired somewhere, the echo of it seems far away. There is tramping of feet overhead, and ropes and chains are dragged along. What is this? There is a gleam of light. I can feel the air blowing upon me’. (Stoker 298)

8Her mind turns into a recording device, before the transmission stops abruptly. The ironic shift to tea and the domestic performance of a proper woman highlights a contrario the transgressive dimension of Mina’s telepathic skills:

Suddenly she sat up, and as she opened her eyes said sweetly:—
‘Would none of you like a cup of tea? You must all be so tired!’
 (Stoker 298)

9Another transmission establishes contact, underlined by the anaphoric repetition (‘I can hear’), the echoing symmetrical structures (‘lapping’/’rushing’, ‘Canvas and cordage’, ‘masts and yards’) creating some kind of binary code.

‘I can hear the waves lapping against the ship, and the water rushing by. Canvas and cordage strain and masts and yards creak. The wind is high—I can hear it in the shrouds, and the bow throws back the foam’. (Stoker 289)

10The sense of a boat at sea (wind, foam, sails) is confirmed by deduction and delayed decoding, though it takes some time before the technical transmissions can replace Mina’s:

It is evident that the Czarina Catherine is still at sea, hastening on her way to Varna. Lord Godalming has just returned. He had four telegrams, one each day since we started, and all to the same effect: that the Czarina Catherine had not been reported to Lloyd’s from anywhere. He had arranged before leaving London that his agent should send him every day a telegram saying if the ship had been reported. He was to have a message even if she were not reported, so that he might be sure that there was a watch being kept at the other end of the wire. (Stoker 289)

11The ‘wire’ becomes a lifeline, the telegrams are coded signals that weave a virtual web or net tightening around the Count, to prevent him from escaping.

12The novel brings to a climax the search for the villain as the chase occurs across countries, pitting the fellowship against occult supernatural powers. The hermeneutic quest and the ‘agony of expectation’ (Stoker 299) blend Gothic anguish and detective fever. But the expected ending and final confrontation is perhaps less striking than those brief moments of transmission at daybreak and at dusk. The sensory impressions of the swift ship are curiously lyrical, perhaps because they fulfil the fantasy of instant communication. The network of telegrams, phonograph cylinders, and carbon copies, is nothing compared to this glimpse of the virtual visitation of the mind, conveying the fantasy that, were it properly tuned, the mind might become a direct telephone. Yet it is only through contamination and the Count’s supernatural intervention through impure contamination, that Mina may thus be granted telepathic powers of transmission, though unlike Lucy she remains firmly part of the chain of command, of the fellowship of crusaders. Magic telecommunication, here, can only occur on the brink, the interface with the dark Gothic double.

  • 3 The time traveller reads the dichotomy in terms of working class, the Morlocks recalling the workin (...)
  • 4 See Hansen’s reading of Butler’s ‘machined man’, of ‘machinery’s experiential impact’ and of ‘the p (...)

13Whereas Dracula speculates upon the mind-as-transmitter while using actual technology to eradicate Gothic contamination, other texts probe into the threat of global technology and posthuman dystopia. The fantasy of a network of long-distance communication is implemented in E. M. Forster’s short story entitled ‘The Machine Stops’, a text whose futuristic setting is uncharacteristic for Forster, though the themes that are tackled run through his work, as we shall see. The short story draws upon dystopian versions of technology, as acknowledged by Forster’s foreword: ‘The Machine Stops [sic] is a reaction to one of the earlier heavens of H. G. Wells’ (Forster 1982, 6). The ironic term ‘heavens’ refers to Wells’s 1895 novel The Time Machine: Forster was fascinated by the Morlocks, dwelling underground with ancient machines.3 The story also seems to answer the question raised by Samuel Butler in his 1872 Erewhon, a text which Forster was fond of and which he mentions in Aspects of the Novel. In ‘The Book of the Machines’, Butler questions the parasitic dependence of man upon machine, and wonders what might happen if ‘all machines were to be annihilated at one moment’. Indeed, man would become extinct in six weeks, and Butler harps upon the striking paradox: ‘Man’s very soul is due to the machines; it is a machine-made thing: he thinks as he thinks, and feels as he feels, through the work that machines have wrought upon him, and their existence is quite as much a sine qua non for his, as his for theirs’ (Butler n.p.).4 Forster envisions a technological world below the earth that offers automated satisfaction, in order to rephrase the question of parasitic dependence raised by Butler.

14The short story denies context. There is no mention of a war or of a conflict to explain why the air above is so polluted that respirators are needed, and why humanity has been forced to retreat below the surface of the earth. But the pod-like rooms anticipate the kind of architecture that we know today, with air conditioning, rooms without windows yet suffused with light and background music:

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. (Forster 1982, 109)

15Of course, this exists today above ground rather than underground, though we may think of converted basements and parking lots for instance. The room itself is entirely automated; the bed vanishes or surfaces at will, and if a book falls, the floor rises to give the book back. Above all, Forster envisions a world ruled by telecommunications, as if foreseeing the IPad, the Internet and Skype in the process. This might seem like a grand claim, yet the characters are granted access to ordinary means of communication that sound uncannily familiar today. For instance, Vashti (the main character) delivers onscreen lectures online, as it were:

The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms. Seated in her arm-chair she spoke, while they in their arm-chairs heard her, fairly well, and saw her, fairly well. (113)

16Long-distance transmission appears to be a long-established, routine process; attention span, however, has become limited, since the required time for such lectures cannot exceed ten minutes. The adjective ‘clumsy’ is an instance of Bourdieu’s habitus; Vashti has absorbed beliefs and ideological constructs. In Forster’s text, the adjective functions ironically, a signal that machines should not replace human contact. Beatrice Battaglia reads the story in the light of Jameson’s ‘Third Machine Age’, and contends that far from being a Neo-Luddite ‘paranoiac vision or a dated Edwardian period piece’, Forster’s tale subtly dramatizes the gradual aspect of technical disorientation: ‘the basic intention of this great story is to give fantastic expression to the gradual and unperceived wandering of the ability to get one’s bearings, to move or decide: in short, to act. (Battaglia 52)

17To communicate across the earth, Vashti and her son use a ‘blue plate’ that foreshadows IPads. Long before electric screens, Forster’s characters hold a device in their hands which allows to establish long-distance communication, and not simply to speak to but to see the person whom one is addressing. Once again, the apparatus is taken for granted; it is this sense of routine that makes Forster’s text so innovative. The chromatic scheme, the bluish (and purple) light seems eerily familiar today, but the note that strikes true is the touch of impatience. Fifteen seconds has become an annoying time-span, to speak to someone who is actually hundreds of miles away:

She touched the isolation knob, so that no one else could speak to her. Then she touched the lighting apparatus, and the little room was plunged into darkness.
‘Be quick!’ She called, her irritation returning. ‘Be quick, Kuno; here I am in the dark wasting my time’.
But it was fully fifteen seconds before the round plate that she held in her hands began to glow. A faint blue light shot across it, darkening to purple, and presently she could see the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the earth, and he could see her.

18The ‘blue plate’ is round rather than rectangular, and like the cinema, it seems to require the dimming of the room’s light, but apart from that, the exchange corresponds to today’s technology. When Vashti cuts off communication with her son, she must deal with the accumulated unrelated messages and requests that have arrived in the meantime, bells and speaking-tubes that function very much like emails. Indeed, Forster perceives the potential growth of long-distanced contacts, an intuition which maps something that comes close to today’s social networks: ‘She knew several thousand people; in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously’ (109).

19Knowing thousands of people, however, does not make the communication between mother and son easier. Vashti feels uneasy when the conversation ends, but this is soon erased by the multiple kinds of satisfaction provided by her own room. Technology appears to fulfil one’s every wish, as is suggested by the anaphoric repetition of ‘button’, harping on the seductive, magnetic pull of technology.

For a moment Vashti felt lonely.
Then she generated the light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her. There were buttons and switches everywhere—buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of
 (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world. (113)

  • 5 I am thankful to Sara Thornton for this suggestion.
  • 6 Žižek is analyzing the Matrix and the Truman Show, where a controlled universe is manipulated.

20Pressing the buttons yields instant automatic satisfaction, pointing to the erotic component of the technological world, while at the same time the anaphoric repetition of ‘there was’ makes the syntax tedious rather than exciting. The paradigmatic list of commodities highlights the narcissism of a pleasure that remains an ersatz of true content or ecstasy, as artificial as the imitation marble bath. The body seems to come into its own, yet the ‘warm deodorized liquid’ suggests a sanitized flesh that is devoid of human mess,5 pared down by synthetic smells and hygienic imperatives. Ultimately, the capitalist or consumerist paradise offers sensory pleasure as a staged fake (like the mock marble basin), or, to quote Žižek, as ‘a semblance of real life deprived of the weight and inertia of materiality’ (Žižek n.p.).6 Pampering Vashti, the machine procures babyish rather than sensual satisfaction, as if each button were a kind of artificial umbilical cord. As human agency dwindles, the buttons become prosthetic limbs, and by staying in her room Vashti becomes less a subject than a techno-mediated body, a kind of posthuman machinic assemblage. The text implies that instant satisfaction cripples the will and weakens the very skills that might ensure survival in case of system failure.

  • 7 Alf Seegert reads the story as a criticism of aestheticism as well as a critique of the ‘techno-uto (...)

21For Forster, the mechanized world of the near future creates a kind of hyper-reality which isolates people. For Seegert, the ‘satire of hypermediated contact’ in ‘The Machine Stops’ ‘carries strong ecocritical implications in its suggestion that all authentic connection—whether between people themselves or between people and the earth—must be corporeal’7 rather than technological (Seegert 35). As Žižek puts it, ‘the ultimate truth of the capitalist utilitarian de-spiritualized universe is the de-materialization of the “real life” itself, its reversal into a spectral show’ (Žižek n.p.). In Forster’s terms, this world may offer narcissistic satisfaction, but telecommunications do not actually allow people to keep in touch, to stay in touch, that is to say, to actually, touch.

  • 8 Marin applies the concept of degenerated utopia to Disneyland.

22Such is the point made by Vashti’s son Kuno, who begs his mother to come and visit him, since he no longer wants to talk to her through the machine. Though technically the system severs the ties between parents and children in infancy, Vashti yields to her son’s request, but suffers from acute disorientation at the thought of actually travelling. Travelling is easy, yet it is also disturbing, since it forces Vashti to leave the sealed microcosm of her secure room and to actually come across other human beings: ‘One other passenger was in the lift, the first fellow creature she had seen face to face for months. Few travelled in these days, for, thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly alike all over’ (116–17). The global distribution of uniformity turns this world into a consumerized dystopia rather than utopia, or a ‘degenerated utopia’, to borrow Louis Marin’s concept.8 Forster then imagines a world in which air travel has spread so much that it is taken for granted, and has by now become all but obsolete:

The air-ship service was a relic from the former age. It was kept up, because it was easier to keep it up than to stop it or to diminish it, but it now far exceeded the wants of the population. Vessel after vessel would rise from the vomitories of Rye or of Christchurch (I use the antique names), would sail into the crowded sky, and would draw up at the wharves of the south—empty. So nicely adjusted was the system, so independent of meteorology, that the sky, whether calm or cloudy, resembled a vast kaleidoscope whereon the same patterns periodically recurred. (117)

23Once again, there is something challenging about the accuracy of Forster’s vision here. We may recall that by early 1908, it was a feat for an aeroplane to actually take off, and circle round a field. Then the aptly-named Henry Farman daringly flew in a straight line, and performed the first journey leading from one point to another, covering a staggering distance of twenty-seven kilometres. By the end of 1909, this was to grow into hundreds of kilometres. Clearly, this was a crucial period marked by the exponential acceleration of flying, yet this remains a far cry from the vision of airships with passengers, performing routine flights with blinds to block out the sun, a stewardess, and weary passengers uninterested in a by now obsolete mode of transport: airplanes are a ‘relic of a former age’, propelled or vomited, so to speak, into the air and criss-crossing the sky in all weather to no avail. Forster’s fable offers an uncanny insight into things to come. The few remaining passengers complain if the light is switched off, and are disturbed by the windows and skylights once designed to look at the landscape beneath, and now a mere source of inconvenience ‘to those who were civilized and refined’ (119). We find here a variation the familiar Forsterian theme of the room with a view. Civilization and refinement are ironic terms, connoting a contrario an artificial culture that has cut itself off from nature, and thereby from true culture. Rather than literature, the only secular form of faith which remains is the cult of the Machine; Vashti repeatedly returns to and worships the ‘book of the Machine’ (116). This is where the story becomes intensely Forsterian. It is all about, of course, ‘Only connect’ (Forster 1985, epigraph, n.p.)

24The story may be read in various ways. Kuno’s desire to reach the surface, his longing to tell his mother about his delight in escaping from the cosy, womb-like space below, can be construed as an irresistible desire to ‘come out’. Or coming to terms with sexuality, finding a natural space out there where other beings exist, at a time when homosexuality was still very much illegal and punishable.

25But the story also presents itself as a ‘meditation’. It is, as A Passage to India will be, a variation on the Myth of the Cave, Plato’s cautionary myth. Indeed, this recalls Žižek’s analysis of the Matrix as replicating Plato’s ‘dispositif’ of the cave, with ordinary human beings as prisoners compelled to watch the shadowy performance of what they falsely consider to be reality. For Žižek, when they escape and reach the surface of the earth, they no longer find the rays of the sun but the ‘Desert of the Real’. In Forster’s case, the earth may still be out there, but the Desert of the Real is inside, in the cave colonized by capital and consumerism, the mechanistic world below the surface.

26Vashti’s world seems to offer a network of instant technological communications, with the blue plate that transmits voice and vision, yet it prevents touch and true human connection (that blessed Only Connect). Humanity is being gradually paralyzed (Vashti finds it hard to walk a few steps to board the air-transport system) and depends on prosthetic machinery (like the floor that rises to give the book back). Once the network has been set up, there is no longer any need to meet or move.

27This entails spiritual destitution (through the cult of the Machine) and the territorialisation of the body which has become addicted to technology. In Deleuzian terms, this creates a line of death through passively induced becoming-machine:

The Machine develops—but not on our lines. The Machine proceeds—but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die. (131)

28The image upgrades vampirism, as machinery has become vampiric, and humans mere blood particles.

29Moreover, relying on the Machine means being vulnerable, entailing the risk of a system failure. What happens if the machine hiccups and grinds down to a halt? This occurs towards the end of the story:

But there came a day when, without the slightest warning, without any previous hint of feebleness, the entire communication-system broke down, all over the world, and the world, as they understood it, ended. (Forster 1982, 142)

  • 9 Though the gesture is partly Œdipal, it must also be read, simply, as the antithesis of long-distan (...)

30Everything collapses in an apocalyptic moment in which neither Kuno nor Vashti can be saved, though they may finally reach out and connect: ‘“Quicker,” he gasped, “I am dying—but we touch, we talk, not through the Machine.”’ (145)9

31To conclude, Dracula counters telepathy with telegrams, foregrounding modern long-distance transmissions, whereas Forster’s prescient short story engages with the dystopian aspect of forthcoming long-distance technology. ‘The Machine Stops’ was dismissed in the seventies as an instance of nostalgia and pre-Industrial fantasy (Kuno surfaces in Wessex, for instance, Hardy’s literary territory), but it is calling for renewed critical attention, with its acute insight into hyperreality. Rather than mere nostalgia, the story seems to betray a fascination for emergent forms of technology, such as telephone and airplanes. Otherwise, how would Forster get it so right? Forster probes into the epistemology and the politics of the potential development of communication networks, substituting hyperreality and simulacrum for contact. His dystopian vision unravels the vampiric potential of technology, not only depriving the human body of agency, but inducing the threats of risk society. For Alf Seegert, the short story embodies ‘specifically modernist anxieties’ while breaking new ground in terms of genre: ‘By viscerally demonstrating the horrors that he imagined would ensue if humans relinquished physical contact in favor of machine-mediated connection, Forster helped inaugurate the genre of 20th century dystopian science fiction from which such novels as We, Brave New World, and 1984 have descended’ (Seegert 34). Above all, perhaps, we may view the short story as the textual laboratory that allows Forster to work through his ambivalence towards technology, leading to his 1910 novel, Howards End. In Howards End, the new apartment building with its transparent lift seems to smother Ruth Wilcox; motor-cars function like agents of contamination, spreading real estate speculation, heartless accumulation and ownership; and the proto-Twitter clipped language of ‘telegrams and anger’ disturbs communications. Hovering between fascination and a deep distrust regarding the potential hyperreality that he foresees in a blind, risk-prone society, Forster is calling instead for ways of negotiating modernity, for true contact and for an ethics of care.

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1 For Arata, Dracula departs from the Gothic tradition by bringing the vampire to London, where he can collect houses, master real estate and collect women, thereby penetrating the heart of the Empire: ‘The Count endangers Britain’s integrity as a nation at the same time that he imperils the personal integrity of individual citizens’ (Arata 465). For Friedrich A. Kittler, Dracula is not simply a colonial fable fearing the return of the Other, but a tale of rebellion, the ‘perenially misjudged heroic epic of the final victory of technological media over the blood-sucking despots of old Europe’. (Kittler 86)

2 In La Pharmacie de Platon, Jacques Derrida explores writing as pharmakon, playing on polysemy (poison, remedy, scapegoat).

3 The time traveller reads the dichotomy in terms of working class, the Morlocks recalling the working class. The Morlocks now feed upon the Eloi, suggesting evolving class structures.

4 See Hansen’s reading of Butler’s ‘machined man’, of ‘machinery’s experiential impact’ and of ‘the profound complicity of machines in the ontology of the human’ (Hansen 25).

5 I am thankful to Sara Thornton for this suggestion.

6 Žižek is analyzing the Matrix and the Truman Show, where a controlled universe is manipulated.

7 Alf Seegert reads the story as a criticism of aestheticism as well as a critique of the ‘techno-utopian optimism of writers like Edward Bellamy and especially H. G. Wells’ (Seegert 35). He also suggests that Vashti’s pale mushroom complexion must be connected with Degeneration. Similarly, Mark Decker studies the story as a parable of the ‘biomedical imaginary’ of the time, ‘in the context of contemporary debates about enervating cities, misguided public health programs, and declining birthrates’ (Decker 54).

8 Marin applies the concept of degenerated utopia to Disneyland.

9 Though the gesture is partly Œdipal, it must also be read, simply, as the antithesis of long-distance communication and allowing care and connection.

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Catherine Lanone, « Victorian and Edwardian Virtual Reality: from Stoker to Forster », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 87 Printemps | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2018, consulté le 23 juin 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.3501

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Catherine Lanone

Catherine Lanone is Professor of British literature at the University Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3. She wrote two books, one on E. M. Forster and the other on Emily Brontë as well as numerous articles on Forster, Woolf, the Gothic and its persistence in British fiction and culture.
Catherine Lanone est Professeur de Littérature Britannique à l’Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3. Elle est l’auteur d’un livre consacré à E. M. Forster et d’un livre sur Emily Brontë, et de nombreux articles sur Forster, Woolf, mais aussi le gothique et ses résurgences.

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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