This is the first "sci-fi" short story I've read as part of my 2012 reading project and if you'd told me it would be an E.M. Forster story, I'd have laughed and denied that it could be true. However, it seems to me, after reading this story, that he was sort of meant to write this type of thing. It is strange and eerie and oddly believable despite the talk of air-ships and glowing blue plates and death worms and breathing tubes and THE MACHINE.
This idea of "the machine" is obviously a metaphorical one in the story but we are shown how a mother and a son adapt to life inside the machine and the ramifications of venturing outside of the machine. The central conflict revolves around the son's decision to leave, to challenge the structure on which the machine is based, a structure which keeps individuals isolated and devoid of personal connections to not only people but to places, animals, plants, anything that could stir emotion.
When the mother, Vashti, repeatedly recalls the "terrors of direct experience", the reader sees very clearly what Forster is trying to do, what he is trying to say. I think however that this story is best summed up by the following quote from the story:
"The imponderable doom, declared by a discredited philosophy to be the actual essence of intercourse, was rightly ignored by the Machine, just as the imponderable doom of the grape was ignored by the manufacturers of artificial fruit. Something "good enough" had long since been accepted by our race."
This is perfect. Forster is setting forth his own challenge in this story which was first published in 1909. There has to be something better than "good enough" if we are only brave enough to look for it.