The American Conservative
Daniel J. Flynn
January 4, 2012
Ray Bradbury would have made a great “Revenge of the Nerds” character alongside Gilbert, Lewis, Poindexter, Wormser, and Lamar Latrell, had he not been such a caricature. A four-eyed, zit-faced, bully bull’s-eye gliding through Los Angeles on steel-wheeled rollerskates, Bradbury was a fanboy who forcefully demanded autographs and pictures from Hollywood’s most glamorous stars. Nobody told the uncouth teenaged transplant from the Midwest that he was staring at his opposites when he cornered Marlene Dietrich, Clark Gable, and Judy Garland. The stargazer dared to become the star. His life is the ultimate revenge of the nerd.
The writer once rebelled against his nerd designation. Now he rebels against nerds themselves. Technology, the plaything of geeks, is Bradbury’s punching bag. Seventy years and more of his short stories have taken readers from Nowheresville, Middle America to the ancient ruins of Mars, meeting along the way big, beautiful, tattooed women; Mexicans time-sharing a $59 vanilla leisure suit; and midgets achieving vertical liberation through funhouse mirrors. Within that gigantic oeuvre no theme is more, well, Bradburian than that of contraptions designed to make life better actually making it worse.
“I,” three-centuries-dead William Lantry announces in 1948’s “Pillar of Fire,” “am an anachronism.” Bradbury might well have been talking about himself. Science fiction’s greatest living writer never bothered with a driver’s license, regards video games as time wasters, refuses to unbind his books for electronic readers, and dismisses the computer as a highfalutin typewriter. In 1968 he missed receiving the Aviation-Space Writers’ Robert Ball Memorial Award in person because fear of flying prevented him from arriving at Cape Canaveral from Los Angeles in time. The bard of Martian civilization didn’t make it above the Earth’s clouds until his seventh decade.
Even the emailed correspondence for this article reached Bradbury only through a human intermediary. Seeing “Ray Bradbury” appear in my inbox produced a momentary letdown akin to learning that Ted Nugent is a vegan or A.J. Foyt rides a bicycle. But the pay-no-attention-to-that-man-behind-the-curtain feeling evaporated with the comforting discovery that his daughter handles such modern communications for him.
For H.G. Wells and Edward Bellamy, utopia was the far future. Bradbury looks in the other direction. He sets his wayback machine to Green Town, America circa 1920. The son of a Swedish immigrant mother and a power lineman father, Bradbury cherishes a nostalgia for boyhood along Lake Michigan that would seem odd given the mama’s boy wimpiness that made him a target for his peers. His family’s poverty limited his opportunities; so hard up were the Bradburys that one older brother taken by 1918’s influenza epidemic lies in an unmarked grave, while another older brother shared a bed with Ray in the makeshift living room/bedroom well into adulthood.
This time and place is nevertheless the Eden of Bradbury’s fiction. This is perhaps most loudly pronounced in “Mars Is Heaven” (1948)—redubbed “The Third Expedition” in The Martian Chronicles (1950)—in which the red planet turning out to be heaven is overshadowed by the fact that heaven turns out to be small-town America.
The colonization of Mars is nothing new: it’s the conquest of the North American continent all over again. Martians play the role of Indians; disease wipes out the original inhabitants; St. Joseph’s, Missouri becomes a launch pad; adventurers go native; boom towns yield to ghost towns; and Earthlings go up instead of west to start anew. The Martian future is the American past.
And the American past that Bradbury most longs for is his own. Uprooted from Waukegan, Illinois as a teenager, the Tinseltown-transplant developed career aspirations higher than the Hollywood sign. Bradbury stayed in California, but his imagination frequently journeyed back to northern Illinois. What do they know of Waukegan who only Waukegan know?
Bradbury’s retro heaven meshes with his skepticism of progress, science, and technology. His life exhibits throwback tendencies; his fiction, all the more.
Two miners arise from the subterranean darkness into sunlight in “Almost the End of the World” (1957). They discover that solar emissions have turned off television and turned on people. Instead of watching, people do. They jam on instruments, hold neighborhood beer bashes, go bowling. People talk to one another rather than absorb the idiot box’s monologue. The town barber, unaware that he has never had it so good, tells the miners that screens going blank “was like a good friend who talks to you in your front room and suddenly shuts up and lies there, pale, and you know he’s dead and you begin to turn cold yourself.”
In “The Ghost in the Machine” (1996), an enthusiastic 1850s inventor sees in his contraption a means to eradicate the scourge of horse manure and more quickly propel men to their destinations. Bewildered villagers surrounding the farmhouse laboratory see a “lunatic device, the insane machine that goes nowhere but in going might run down a child, a lamb, a priest, a nun, or an old blind dog.” The villagers petition to take the creator of the automobile to the insane asylum.
Before “Kill Your Television” became a rallying cry, Albert Brock employed a pistol to do the deed in “The Murderer” (1953). An equal-opportunity technocutioner, Brock assassinates cell phones, GPS systems, and other gadgets of today’s reality that then existed only in Bradbury’s imagination.
Appearing crazy to his captors, Brock tells of his one-man revolution against invasive communications to the prison psychiatrist, whose wrist phone he promptly bites to death. The protagonist employs chocolate ice cream to assassinate his dashboard navigator/phone/radio. “That car radio cackling all day, Brock go here, Brock go there, Brock check in, Brock check out, okay Brock, hour lunch, Brock, lunch over, Brock, Brock, Brock. Well, that silence was like putting ice cream in my ears.”
He rationalized destroying his telephone: “The telephone’s such a convenient thing; it just sits there and demands you call someone who doesn’t want to be called. Friends were always calling, calling, calling me.” On the bus, he interferes with the transmission of the various electronic gizmos used by his fellow riders. “The bus inhabitants faced with having to converse with each other. Panic! Sheer, animal panic!” Albert Brock just wanted some peace and quiet in a loud world.
It turns out that the most insightful commentary on the virtual age of Facebook friends, video-game Olympiads, and online sex was written shortly after University of Pennsylvania scientists developed a 30-ton computer but before the Department of Defense transmitted data over the Internet.
Ray Bradbury loves human beings, and his hatred of the digital devices that divide us from us stems from their dehumanizing influence. Sure, they make us more passive and corrode our mental circuits. But of greatest importance, technology, amidst a million obvious benefits, has the overlooked drawback of making human life less human. Basement Internet porn addictions preventing relationships, video games supplanting sports as an afterschool activity, vicarious social life through reality television, and hundreds of Facebook friends without a single true friend are all manifestations of the way technology helps man dodge his fellow man.
The author of “Marionettes, Inc.” (1949), a story about spouses employing robot duplicates so they don’t have to deal with each other, surely drew a bead on how getting in touch with technology can keep one out of touch with people. Nothing appears so horribly dated to the present as the past’s vision of the future. But for the writer who gets the future more or less right, postdating stories is one way to keep them alive. Reality television, the Walkman, and virtual reality are among the technological developments Bradbury’s fiction anticipated. On the other hand, if his futuristic stories are to be interpreted as predictions, one could as easily say that he wrongly foresaw vacuum tubes delivering our dinners and robot murder becoming a capital crime.
Bradbury’s vision of the future germinated from what he saw in the postwar present: gadgeted distractions, screens separating humans from humans, televisions raising children, the vicarious life replacing life itself, leisure time becoming a waste of time. He sensed in which direction the world spun, and he didn’t want to go there. Alas, from Fahrenheit 451 ’s televised helicopter fugitive chase to the television-as-babysitter of “The Veldt” (1950), we live in the real world that his fiction had warned us about. Ray Bradbury is the atavist’s futurist.
• • •But he didn’t always seem so visionary to critics. Time damned Bradbury with faint praise in 1953 by dubbing him the “poet of the pulps.” Two years later, the Luce publication, inhaling the era’s neo-phrenological preoccupation with foreheads, explained that Bradbury and his ilk “appeal to the middle or relatively uncorrugated brow, rather than the highbrow.”
Bradbury played a familiar role: the outcast. Wordsmiths were supposed to daydream of writing the Great American Novel. Bradbury preferred the more accessible short story. Pigeonholed as a writer of science fiction, a species of literature then ranking somewhere above soft-core pornography in respectability but below cowboy stories, Bradbury dabbled in the equally gauche genres of gothic horror, weird tales, and detective stories. His work inhabited the pulp ghetto of the newsstand, the bookstore’s mass-market paperback carousel, and such unfashionable stops on the radio dial as “Dimension X,” “Molle Mystery Theater,” and “Lights Out.” That was no way to get in with the in-crowd. Atop all that, he lived in Los Angeles; the literary guardians in Manhattan. They had attended tony schools; he had awarded himself a degree from the public library. For not the first time in his life, Ray Bradbury was uncool.
But the blue-collar intellectual kept writing. By his 45th birthday in 1965, Bradbury was the father of four girls—and had published 261 stories. When he turned 90 in August 2010, he had more than double that number in print. As he explained to me, “I simply had to write each and every day, whether stories sold or not.”
After a stroke in 1999, Bradbury was forced to quit Coors beer. (His enthusiasm for strawberry ice cream could not be abolished by medical edict.) He couldn’t quit writing. But like the lifestyle, the writing process necessarily changed. Instead of making concrete his imagination by means of a typewriter, the storyteller now tells his stories over the phone to his youngest daughter Alexandra, who records, then transcribes, and finally faxes—for some reason this modern contrivance has won his approval—the stories to her father for revision. In this manner, he today toils on yet another collection of short stories. Just as when he was a struggling young dad, ninetysomething Ray Bradbury simply has to write.
This commitment to his craft that won him a mass audience eventually paid off with the critics, too. Bradbury, in an effort to transcend the “genre writer” designation, submitted short stories under the name “William Elliott” to Mademoiselle , Charm , and Collier’s . All accepted within the one magical week in 1945. The 25-year-old then revealed himself as the pseudonymous “Mr. Elliott,” instructing the editors to redraft the checks and rewrite the bylines to award him the credit. If the conspicuous contributor to Weird Tales , Amazing Stories , and Dime Mystery cursed his own name for excluding him from urbane journals, he thanked his talent for finally getting him inside.
The clincher for literati acceptance, and superstardom among the literate public, came with Fahrenheit 451 (1953), the paperback juggernaut that became a favorite of high-school English teachers and librarians everywhere. A book about books is a novel way to get booklovers to love your novel, a well to which Bradbury would return often. His short-story plots include a parrot able to recite Hemingway’s lost last work, a mechanical facsimile of George Bernard Shaw keeping an astronaut company on his star trek, and a time traveler seeking to rescue the likes of Tolstoy and Melville from their miserable selves. In Fahrenheit 451 , a remnant rescues books from their fiery fate by becoming books through memorization.