“I want the world to be better because I was here”
- Will Smith
I first stumbled onto the works of Ray Bradbury in 1986 when I spied an episode of
The Ray Bradbury Theater on late night television. Much of the stories were laced with elements of horror, much like I had become accustomed to through re-runs of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I eagerly found myself studying the VCR manual in order to tape each episode, but unfortunately, lost track of his work when the series ended in 1992. Today I’m wise enough to ensure the love affair with this wise soul never ends though the addition of his series to my video collection - complements of eBay. That’s about as utopian as it gets for me these days.
The term “utopia” was first introduced by Thomas More through his novel as a place considered home to the perfect society. In terms of the science fiction genre, it refers to the benefits our technological advances will one day bestow upon us – a perfect world we hope will exist for our future generations. Ray Bradbury’s work, however, points towards dystopia and continually warns us that becoming too dependent on technology will destroy us if we proceed without caution. In his piece, The Murderer, Bradbury plants a single seed of sedition:
“We thought a lot of a good thing would be great, but it’s not. We’ve come dependent. We’re prisoners of our own progress.”
Our desire for more leisure time and less working hours propels our innovative thinking. Today’s homemakers have washing machines and vacuums that assist in keeping the house tidy. In the kitchen, convection and microwave ovens ensure that the family has a hot meal in a fraction of the time it took our great grandmothers. These inventions have even followed us into the nursery where they ensure our colicky babies are vibrated and rocked to music that persuades them to tranquility. Bradbury understood a parent’s need to give children the best the world has to offer, but he was also wise enough to caution us to the dangers of being born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth. This lesson is apparent in my favorite Bradbury sci-fi gadget tale, The Veldt, where parents George and Lydia discover they have been replaced by a mechanical nursery made to appease their children’s intellect. The problem with this all too efficient nursemaid is that it hasn’t taught the children any morality. By the time they decide to “tarnish the silver” they realize the room has other plans for their future - complements of two growing children’s’ imaginations:
“And suddenly, they realized why the two screams sounded so familiar.”
Moving forward and growing through technology may be essential to our economy if you believe in the Neoclassical Growth Theory, but Bradbury’s sci-fi fantasy, The Sound of Thunder, reminds us of how delicate the balance of evolution is in terms of our existence and how meddling with that balance through time travel can alter who we are today:
“Eventually it all boils down to this: fifty-nine million years later, a caveman, one of a dozen on the entire world, goes hunting wild boar or saber-toothed tiger for food. But you, friend, have stepped on all the tigers in that region…so the caveman starves...destroy this one man, and you destroy a race, a people, an entire history of life…so be careful. Stay on the Path. Never step off!”
Even if we manage to stay on this path of accelerated technological discoveries and manage to harness its great power, will it better our morality and ensure our survival? Bradbury’s sci-fi cosmic disaster story, There Will Come Soft Rains addresses this very concern. If we manage to secure our own extinction, who will guarantee that the power is always on for our mechanical devices that once clothed and fed and rocked us to sleep?
“The house was an altar with ten thousand attendants, big, small, servicing, attending, in choirs. But the gods had gone away, and the ritual of the religion continued senselessly, uselessly.”
For as much as we fear technology, what we should fear more is our own stupidity. The repercussions of our irresponsibility are what nightmares are made of. This reason explains why I’ve never thought of Bradbury’s work as science fiction - it’s not the aliens I fear, it’s the capacity man has to destroy himself through his insatiable avarice that keeps me up at night. Thankfully we have the ability to learn and change through the experiences and stories we share with one another around the campfire.
Someone once told me that a good writer can entertain you by telling a story, but great writers can change your life though the power of words. There are few writers that have this ability - Ray Bradbury is one of them. Bradbury has helped mold the world as we know it for more than seven generations with tales filled with “one half exhilaration and one half terror.”
Through his work we are given the chance to watch the world change in a lifetime. If the entire purpose of our existence is to leave the world a better place, then Ray Bradbury has succeeded where others have failed. What a wonderful way to live forever.