The Breakthrough - words on blue star trail background

The Breakthrough, by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier’s short story puts the ghost in the machine.

In his short story The Machine Stops, E. M. Forster pulls off quite the psychic party trick: he predicts the internet 80 years before its invention, then foresees its dominance over us. Du Maurier’s sci-fi story The Breakthrough (1966), similarly touches on our tangled relationship with technology, in which we want to both create and be One with ‘the machine’.

Stephen, a deadpan electronics engineer, is abruptly transferred to a secretive project on the east coast. There he joins a team working on a series of computers, each named Charon, after the ferryman of Greek mythology. These computers can in turn capture and manipulate the ‘vital spark’ – the soul, in other words. In a grim twist, one of the team agrees to be the test subject in an experiment that will push the boundaries of technology and “answer at last the intolerable futility of death”.

The Breakthrough sets up a line of questioning since answered by – among others – The Matrix, Transcendence, Surrogates and The X Files (in the episodes ‘Kill Switch’ and ‘This’). At what point does the ‘internet of things’ become the internet of everything, including human experience and consciousness?

Du Maurier’s answer isn’t an entirely sophisticated one. It hedges its bets between the supernatural and sci fi and, given the length of the story, the exposition in either direction lacks some meat. The ambiguity keeps things interesting, however: at some point, you’re likely to wonder if narrator Stephen is himself unknowingly controlled by Charon. Like much of this story, whether that’s possible – or even plausible – is something you’ll have to decide for yourself.

“My part in the affair started on September 18th, when my chief sent for me and told me he was transferring me to Saxmere on the east coast. He was sorry about it, he said, but I was the only one with the necessary technical qualifications for the particular work they had on hand. No, he couldn’t give me any details; they were an odd lot down there, and shut themselves up behind barbed wire at the slightest provocation. The place had been a radar experimental station a few years back, but this was finished, and any experiments that were going on now were of an entirely different nature, something to do with vibrations and the pitch of sound.”

Similar to: The Machine Stops (E.M. Forster), Don’t Look Now (du Maurier)

The Breakthrough, Daphne du Maurier (1966). Penguin Classics, 2018


Words: my own except where quoted.

Photo by Derek Thomson.