EESE 11/1996

Frank Borsch (Freiburg)

Information Technology New and Old: James Patrick Kelly's Big Guy and E. M. Forster's The Machine Stops

Ever since the team Clinton/Gore came up with their suggestion for a "National Information Superhighway" during the Presidential campaign in 1992, information technology in general - and the Internet in particular - has been in the focus of the media in the United States. As a result of this, a vast majority of the American public is aware of information technology. The question arises though, whether this awareness also includes a knowledge of facts. A recent survey1 found that 57% of the interviewees did not know what cyberspace meant, yet at the same time 87% were certain that information technology had made their life better. Another indication of the ignorance of the public are the releases of the first major Hollywood productions on the topic in the summer of 1995. Movies like The Net or Virtuosity are plagued by numerous factual mistakes inadmissible for an informed audience.

Science fiction authors, on the contrary, are faced with a much more sophisticated audience as a recent reader survey2 of an American science fiction magazine illustrates: 44%, up from 27% the year before,3 of its readers were found to use the Internet itself and many others used various commercial Online services and Bulletin Board systems. This familiarity is not surprising since at the core of the genre is the extrapolation of the future, which is usually perceived as synonymous with technological progress. However, a closer analysis of the ties between science fiction and the computer network we know today as Internet, reveals an even more intimate relationship between the two.

The origin of the Internet goes back to the early 1960's.4 The RAND corporation pondered a near future setting already well ploughed by many science fiction authors of the time: the post-doomsday scenario, which is the time after the catastrophe, usually an all-out nuclear war. Most post-doomsday novels, like George R. Stewart's Earth Abides (1949) or Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), adhered to the premise that the old order would be completely destroyed in a nuclear strike; the few survivors having to start from scratch. The reasoning of the RAND corporation went beyond this; it assumed that the government and the military could survive a nuclear strike if only a way could be found to keep communication lines intact.

More recently, the cyberpunks beginning with William Gibson's Neuromancer have shaped our understanding of the Internet by an-ticipating many aspects of it before they came into existence. In Gibson's near future scenario, humans and computers can interface directly. A socket implanted in the brain allows the user to jack in computers and thereby entering the worldwide network. It is then conceived by the person as an actual landscape with blinking lights of data in the dark, populated by human minds and intelligent software creatures - cyberspace. The term was picked up quickly by Internet users and widely discussed in various newsgroups. The online community quickly adopted the term for their purposes. The idea of a space behind the computer screen seemed perfectly natural to them, after all they spent many hours of discussions in that space. One of the earliest servers on the Internet is the WELL, physically located in Sausalito, California. Users entering the WELL are greeted by the following lines:

Given these close ties it has to be assumed that science fiction readers, unlike a general audience, are aware of the actual workings of the Internet. Science fiction written for genre readers has to stand up to the scrutiny of an expert audience and consequently the extrapolation of information technology has to be firmly based on today's technology and its social consequences.

James Patrick Kelly's short story Big Guy6, which was published in Asimov's Science Fiction, which is regarded both by readers and critics of the field as the best magazine of its kind, serves as an excellent example to demonstrate this intimacy. The plot of the story can be easily summarized: "boy meets girl, chases off a rival and asks her out for a date". There are, however, some important additions. The location is cyberspace and while Kelly discloses very little about the identity of the "girl", the "boy" turns out to be "a miserable slab of fat" (68), weighing 278 pounds. Murph is a citizen of the early twenty-first century who lives in a cabin on a ship off Kansas City. Kelly does not offer any details on the exact location of the ship, but geographical detail is hardly needed. Murph's only yearning is for cyberspace where he spends almost all his waking hours. It is where the action is and he is determined not to waste even a single minute with drooling in real space if he can help it. He only returns from cyberspace to work and eat and get very few hours of sleep. He never leaves his cabin. And why should he? Nothing in the actual world around him is of any interest to him:

He has no friends in the actual world and his food is delivered through a hatch in the door of his apartment. His job can be dealt with much more effectively by means of electronic surveillance. The lack of exercise - the apartment is only eight steps wide - has of course its price. As already mentioned above, Murph is extremely obese. But who cares? Murph never interacts with any of his fellow humans physically. All his contacts are mediated by information technology and, indeed, he is well equipped for this kind of interaction: only two - the floor and the utility wall - of the six surfaces of this cabin are not screens.

This existence in a fully artificial environment has also a price in the literal sense. Every single one of Murph's interactions is a service he has to pay for and he struggles hard to afford his lifestyle. At the opening of the story, for instance, Murph is logged into the security systems of 87 "objects," shops, apartments etc. He carries twice the normal workload and does so seven days a week. Aided by drugs he cuts down on sleep as much as possible to have more time either to work or to spend in cyberspace, but the government rules that he has to sleep two hours a day and he has no choice but to give in grudgingly.7

But however hard he tries, he can not earn money fast enough. When he connects to Way Out, the service which is his favorite place in cyberspace, an unpleasant surprise awaits him. A face appears on the screen:

But Murph has no choice, he wants to live fast, and authorizes the payment. Way Out opens his mouth:

Murph walks into the mouth, the individual eaten up metaphorically by the pressures put on it by information technology. Kelly takes with Way Out the concept of virtual reality8 to its ultimate conclusion. Way Out is a service which allows its users to enter a perfect virtual reality. Users are jacked into the systems via braintaps, you can eat, drink, have sex and presumably even die. Your image in Way Out is determined by the software you use. Today's clumsy efforts of creating a virtual reality are much more primitive, but Way Out is more than just a flight of fancy, completely independent from today's technology.

Kelly calls the software used in Way Out "heroware" and its name gives away the attraction it offers: in Way Out you can be whoever you want to be and this usually means larger than life. It is the same thrill today's Internet offers at a much more primitive level, after all no one knows who the person at the keyboard really is.

Way Out also resembles today's IRC9, MUDs10 and newsgroups11 in being a place with its very own character, populated by regulars often forming in-groups. As in-groups go, they are not very responsive to new users, who invariably come across as country bumpkins, ignorant of even the most basic social etiquette of the place. The etiquette of cyberspace has been dubbed "netiquette" and the importance of its conventions can be seen by the proliferation of dozens of guides to netiquette circulating on the Internet. In Big Guy, the newbie John Gathak, Murphs rival, quickly manages to offend against netiquette. Instead of keeping quiet and learning the intricate etiquette of Way Out, called "lurking" in the jargon of the Internet, he asks stupid questions.12 He goes on from there to exhaust the patience by committing an inexcusable blunder by blurting out his real name:

After this Cat, Murph's virtual lover, disposes quickly of him. Her hands change into claws and Ghatak, scared by this assault, flees Way Out panic-stricken. In the language of today's net citizens, such behavior is referred to as "flaming"; frontal verbal assaults at other users which are quite frequent in newsgroups, MUDs and IRC. The sense of anonymity enjoyed by the users weakens the reluctance in this respect considerably. The shortcomings of purely text-based communication also increases the frequency of misunderstandings. There is no body language or intonation on the Internet.13 Sometimes, "flaming" kicks off a chain reaction and the conflicts erupt into "flamewars", when entire newsgroups go down in a blaze of incessant flaming.

Regulars, however, recognize each other by the expert way of handling the netiquette of Way Out. Murph, Cat, and their familiars in Way Out had stopped wasting their free time playing games. Their heroware shredded the mask of virtual fashion, by hinting who they might actually be. Cat, for example, claimed she showed furry because she refused to shave her legs or wax her upper lip. Her eyes made it plain that none of her people had come to America on the Mayflower (68).

Murph's heroware , "Big Guy" is somewhat less subtle as Cat's in hinting at the real person. Big Guy is

This play with reality shows that Murph, although he claims otherwise many times throughout the story, is in fact not preoccupied with virtual reality but with real life. For Way Out, however real it may feel, is not real, it is only ersatz.14 And ersatz can never be as good as the original. Murph tries to hide the truth from himself, but his actions show clearly that he is yearning for happiness in the real world. For instance, before he connects to Way Out he orders some fast food. The delivery girl rings the bell and he musters her image transmitted by the camera outside of his cabin. She is young, maybe thirteen, and looks like an actress he is a fan of. He authorizes a debit to the account of the delivery service and a second one to the girl's account - a generous tip.

She is real - this is why he wants her. She sticks her hand in the hatch. Murph takes the squeeze. She is wearing a glove, another barrier Murph has to peel away before he gets to the real thing. Slowly he uncovers her hand, tenderly noting every detail and masturbates.

His practice of using the delivery girls is one of his strategies to edge closer to a full-blown encounter with a real person; an encounter, one should note, he has not to pay for. The person he wants to meet in real life is Cat. Like him she is a regular in Way Out and her heroware tells him enough about her to sense that she is like him. To simply ask her to meet him outside of Way Out is of course out of question; Cat would dismiss such a blunt attempt immediately. Again, Murph shows himself familiar with the netiquette of Way . "Erasing parts was, in Way Out's seduction protocol, a final step in the dance to intimacy." (68) On his last trip he had erased Big Guy's nipple, this time he goes even further and erases his penis. He and Cat make love in Way Out and when her hand finds that he has erased his penis, her hands turn again into claws and slowly, she tears Big Guy into pieces. Murph is flooded with pain and then, tranquillity:

Murph wakes up in his cabin and the door bell rings. He gets up and opens the door and, before we learn who is there, the story closes. It might be Cat, she might be there to make love, she might... - Big Guy ends in the same ambiguity it treats its topic throughout. On one hand, Big Guy brings the fear of the isolation of the individual to its extreme. Murph's existence, his grotesquely obese body, are an abomination. In the world of machine-mediated interaction the individual is on its own at the mercy of computers and consequently also at the mercy of an unbridled capitalism. On the other hand, Kelly carefully avoids to make any definite statements on exactly how Murph got into the situation we find him in the story: was Murph first obese and drifted consequently off into cyberspace or vice versa? Kelly gives some hints that Way Out is a beneficial place for Murph. For one, he feels at home there: "In Way Out no one got ever locked off. People talked before they fucked. Sometimes they even told each other their real names. Invited each other home" (68).

Cat and Murph, and it is to be inferred the other regulars of Way Out, are on the fringe of society and this is why people like the doctor John Ghatak are out of place there. To Ghatak, Way Out is only a thrill, a very expensive roller coaster ride:

Yet again, this is an aspect of today's Internet. While the majority of users certainly falls into the middle class, the Internet also has a sizable population of users belonging to minorities; be it of sexual orientation, race or opinion.

Although Kelly uses recent developments of information technology as a basis for his extrapolation, his central theme, the isolation of the individual brought about by technology, is an old one and there is strong evidence that Kelly was well aware of this when writing Big Guy. His story shows surprising parallels to E. M. Forster's classic short story The Machine Stops15 from 1909, suggesting that Kelly has written Big Guy as a modern re-interpretation. The stories are based on the same premises, isolation caused by technology, and Forster offers an explanation for this which applies equally to both of them:

The future society presented in The Machine Stops is geared entirely towards bringing services and goods to its members. Mankind has withdrawn entirely from the surface of the earth and lives underground. The citizens of the future live in a world mechanized to such a degree that they actually live inside of one single worldwide machine.

Like Murph, they never leave their little, spartan rooms and if one of them should be forced to do so he/she needs the aid of robot wheelchair. Their muscles have degenerated through the total lack of physical exercise. And why should they leave their rooms? - After all, the world is at their fingertips:

Murph's cabin, of course filled with the gadgets of a much more advanced technology, serves the very same purpose and he relies completely on the mediation by machines as does the average citizen of Forster's underground world. When the technology fails him, the world literally breaks down for him:

Vashti, Forster's protagonist, faces the same situation:
Murph feels and acts precisely the same way as Vashti. Murph couldn't see anything but the red light of the clock over the sink.

The plots of both stories revolve around the protagonists' yearning for a personal encounter. In The Machine Stops, it is Kuno, Vashti's son, who asks for such a meeting. Vashti is shocked. Members of her society are so much estranged that this is an obscene suggestion. But Kuno insists and it appears to her that he is sad, but:

It is the same sentiment as in Big Guy. Machine-mediated interaction has replaced real interaction, which is only ersatz. But Forster's conclusions are entirely different from Kelly's. In The Machine Stops, the mainstream of the society has taken to life in cyberspace. The few people actively yearning for real interaction like Kuno are the misfits of the society. Society at large might be aware of the shortcomings of technology, but they are totally dependent of it and have no choice but stick to it to the bitter end.

Eventually, malfunctions get more frequent until one day the Machine breaks down entirely and mankind dies with it. Vashti and Kuno meet in the wreckage and hold on tight to each other until a huge explosion kills them. Their verdict on the Machine is final:

The Machine Stops impresses with its amazingly accurate extrapolation of an information society at a time when not even the concepts for basic parts of it like computers or monitors existed. Having said that, Forster's rampant technophobia rests partly on foundations eroded in the intervening years. There is for instance his concept of the Machine. Forster and many of the writers following him anticipated future machinery to grow ever more gigantic, which was what machines did during their life-time and they assumed naturally that this trend would continue. Forster's extrapolation of a single all-encompassing machine is a logical conclusion to this. Since WW II though, technology - and especially computers - has gone exactly the other way.

Miniaturization set in and society ended up with a vast complex system of pieces of technology, some of it dependent on each other, others completely independent and yet others sometimes dependent, some-times not. This implies significant changes for the individual. If there is one big machine, the individual has no chance to use it for his or her purposes, it is beyond his or her capacities. On the other hand, the machine can be controlled by a single hand, by the state or the government, giving rise to scenarios like Orwell's 1984. If there is a complex system, as it is portrayed in Big Guy, the machines as a whole can not be controlled by a single authority. The best a government can hope for is to control parts of it. The individual is empowered, because he or she has pieces of technology at disposal in small enough sizes to be handled by single persons.

To a writer this offers the opportunity to depict more sophisticated scenarios than the simple black and white pattern Forster adhered too. The technological trend towards miniaturization, the emergence of the genre of science fiction concerned with the issues of technological progress and specifically with information technology, the knowledgeable readership - all these factors combined contribute to the emergence of such informed and ambiguous pieces of fiction like Kelly's Big Guy.


1 TIME/CNN poll. Philip Elmer-Dewitt: "Welcome to Cyberspace." In: Time Special Issue: Welcome to Cyberspace. Spring 1995.
2 Carolyn Cushman: "1995, Locus Survey Results." In: Locus. September 1995: 56.
3 Carolyn Cushman: "1994, Locus Survey Results." In: Locus. September 1994: 56.
4 Bruce Sterling: "Internet." In: The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. February 1993, 99-107. Also: Online. Internet.
URL: gopher://
10 Aug. 1995.
5 The WELL can be contacted at
6 James Patrick Kelly: "Big Guy." In: Asimov's Science Fiction June 1994, 60-75.
7 The fact that the government has to govern minimum sleep times suggests that Murph's lifestyle is not unusual in his day.
8 David Pringle defines "Virtual reality" in his entry in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia as follows:

9 Internet Relay Chat (IRC) allows users to hold live keyboard conversations with people around the world. Currently, there are hundreds of "channels", that is conversations devoted to individual topics. The user logs into a channel and from then on everything he/she types on his/her keyboard instantly appears on the screens of the users logged into the same channel and vice versa. Currently IRC is a very primitive system. It is text only, and new users have to learn a large set of commands to use it effectively, but once users are past the initial stages, IRC - drawing on the imagination of its users, - can be extremely powerful and even addictive.
Some of the first stories dealing with Internet, were based on an extrapolation of IRC. Vernor Vinge, who is credited with having written the first story on the subject, True Names, in 1981 recently reported in an interview on how smooth and easy the transition from the experience of IRC to fiction was:

10 Multiple-User Dimensions or Dungeons (MUDs) are somewhat similar. They are live role-playing games originally based on the popular Dungeons & Dragons and can be seen as primitive, text-based virtual realities.
11 The electronic form of mass-mailing. Instead of sending a message to a single recipient, you can also send messages to an unlimited number of recipients. Private messages turn into public ones and give users the opportunity to share their opinions and thoughts with thousands of people with the push of a button. Since people's interest vary a lot, so-called discussion or newsgroups evolved quickly, dedicated to the discussion of specific topics. Today there are more than 10.000 different newsgroups, discussing anything from homebeer brewing, to environmental politics, to computers or literature.
12 One guide to netiquette opens appropriately with an quotation from the Talmud: "When thou enter a city abide by its customs." Patrick Douglas Crispen. "Map 07: Netiquette". Online. Internet. URL: gopher:// 7 Sep. 1995.
13 Internet users developed a system of sign language, the so-called "Smileys", to cope with these shortcomings. ":-)", for instance looks like a smiling face and is put at the end of a sentence to mark that it is not meant serious.
14 The American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd Edition. gives the following definition of "ersatz": Being an imitation or a substitute, usually an inferior one; artificial.
15 E.M. Forster. "The Machine Stops." Oxford and Cambridge Review (1909). Rpt. in: The New Collected Short Stories. Ed. P.N. Furbank. Enlarged edition. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1985, 108-140.