Well this post has been a long time coming. I read this back in January, and have only now got around to posting anything on it. To be fair, the next few ‘Thoughts on…’ posts are similar, in that I’ve had them read for several months, but have just been so tardy in getting these posts written. Also, the labelling of this as a ‘Bus Read’ is because this was predominantly read on my way to and from work on the bus. As are the next few books, actually.
This isn’t the first time that I’ve read this book. I was leant it about 11 years ago by my family Vicar, and on the basis of it containing ‘The Machine Stops’, I bought a copy off ebay whilst at Oxford- only getting around to reading it at the start of this year. I have to say that this Wellsian tale is the real gem of the collection, and is perhaps the best short-story I have read- it is perfect in plot, style, message, pathos and irony. My favourite quote from this story has to be from when Vashti is taking an airship over the surface to visit her son Kuno, and refuses to look at the geography that is passing beneath her, just due to the irony and the way in which it pretty much sums up the view of Vashti as a character and the view of humanity in her time:
They were crossing a golden sea, in which lay many small islands and one peninsula. She repeated, ‘No ideas here,’ and hid Greece behind a metal blind.
The rest of the collection is not of the standard of ‘The Machine Stops’, but several of the stories are nevertheless quite noteworthy- and several are not. ‘The Celestial Omnibus’ is the title story of one of the parent volumes for this collection, and tells the tale of a young boy who finds an omnibus that takes him into Heaven, where he meets many mythical heroes. Later, the bus transports a middle-aged neighbour of the child’s, but he dies after falling from the carriage through the sky to the ground below. The story is a highly imaginative one that nicely portrays the imagination of children and the way in which this is closed to adults, as well as showing that children can often be telling the truth, despite the incredible nature of what they often say.
Indeed, my favourite stories in this book all revolve around Heaven or the afterlife (except the anomalous sci-fi tale): ‘The Celestial Omnibus’, ‘The Point of It’, and ‘Mr Andrews’. When it was first published, Forster states that his Bloomsbury friends asked of ‘The Point of It’, “What is the point of it?”, but personally I quite like this story, with its account of a life lived to the full by a man following the death of another young man who he believed was his friend, but who quickly faded from memory. We see the surviving character as he too dies and then reaches Heaven, and see him reassess the way his life played out. Even if the story doesn’t go anywhere particularly, I still like it for the droll manner of its writing, and in the almost Dante-esque descriptions of Heaven with its pillars and deserts of sand.
Similarly, ‘Mr Andrews’ tells of a man who dies and meets a Muslim man on his way into Heaven, where they compare and contrast lives and ideals to show that actually despite our cultural differences, everyone is fundamentally the same on the inside. A nice message, and very well put.
I’m not overly fussed with the other tales in the collection, to be honest, for the simple reason that they don’t seem to either go anywhere or leave any real lasting impression, but despite that I would certainly read this collection again (I have already read it twice, which sort-of vouches for that), with ‘The Machine Stops’ a must. However, I feel that this collection may be a bit like my experience with Fitzgerald. In his case, I adore ‘The Great Gatsby’, yet am not overly impressed with many of his short stories, whereas with Forster I really like many of his short stories, and so am worried that his novels may not live up to these. I shall have to hurry up and read some of his novels to find out!