Ray Bradbury: The future he didn't want to happen
By: Patrick Kiger
If you're a fan of science fiction, you probably remember the moment that you first discovered sci-fi giant Ray Bradbury, who died this morning in Los Angeles at age 91. For me, it was an afternoon on a New Jersey beach in 1970, when I sat on a jetty and dug into a paperback copy of The Illustrated Man, Bradbury's 1951 cycle of short stories that, in the meta-narrative, appear in the form of moving tattoos on the back of an itinerant laborer. (He got them in a brief encounter with a mysterious woman from the future.) As the Illustrated Man explains, he has to change jobs a lot, because his animated body art at once both fascinates and creeps out people. The biggest problem is the spot on his shoulder that invariably foretells the future of whomever he's with.
When I've been around a person long enough, that spot clouds over and fills in. If I'm with a woman, her picture comes there on my back, in an hour, and shows her whole life--how she'll live, how she'll die, what she'll look like when she's sixty. And if it's a man, an hour later his picture's here on my back. It shows him falling off a cliff, or dying under a train. So I'm fired again.
The point Bradbury made in that passage is one that I've been thinking about ever since. That is the paradox of the human condition. On one level, we all have an intense desire to somehow glimpse the future, to predict what will come--whether it's 20 or 50 years from now, or in the next 60 milliseconds or less, which is how long it will take financial data to travel from stock traders in London to New York and back via new super high-speed fiber optic cables that competing companies are now planning to lay on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. But on another level, we don't really want to know what's going to happen, what twisted karma that we've created for ourselves. Climate change denialism is prime evidence of that.
The future (or alternate versions of it) that Bradbury envisioned wasn't a pretty picture. For a guy who imagined humans going to Mars, Bradbury wasn't a big fan of technological progress. He never obtained a driver's license, used a pen and paper instead of an iPad, loathed ATM machines, and famously dismissed the Internet as a "scam" perpetrated by computer companies. In this 2001 Salon interview, he warned that human cloning might enable a future dictator to slaughter the rest of the population and replace it with copies of himself.
Fittingly, when I was reading The Illustrated Man on the beach that afternoon, the story that probably made the strongest impression upon me was "The City." In that tale, a team of astronauts lands on a distant planet and discovers, to their shock, an unpopulated but otherwise totally intact modern metropolis. As they explore it, what they don't realize is that the city itself is a machine, operated by a computer system imbued with artificial intelligence. It also is a trap, set by an ancient race of extraterrestrials who'd been wiped out 20,000 years before by a human biological warfare attack. All that time, the city has been waiting for the genocidal but memory-deficient Homo sapiens to wander back its way, so that it could exact the revenge for which it had been programmed by its dying creators. Before the astronauts realize the situation, they've been vivisected, converted into cyborgs, and programmed to fly back to Earth with a cargo of deadly microbes.
The rocket jumped into the sky. As the thunder faded,the city lay upon the summer meadow. Its glass eyes were dulled over. The Ear relaxed, the great nostril vents stopped, the streets no longer weighed or balanced,and the hidden machinery paused in its bath of oil. In the sky the rocket dwindled.Slowly, pleasurably, the city enjoyed the luxury of dying.
When I re-read that paragraph 42 years later, it's still just as chilling as it was on that sun-drenched summer afternoon. But I don't mean to give the impression that Bradbury was a nihilist, or that he'd given up on humanity (a feeling that I sometimes get from one of my other favorite sci-fi dystopians, Philip K. Dick). To the contrary, Bradbury was a futurist who wanted us to remember that technology lacked the capability, in itself, to make our lives meaningful or satisfying. Instead, he urged us to look within ourselves, and to one another. If you've read Dandelion Wine, you know what I'm talking about. It's fitting that the final work that Bradbury published in his six decades-long career is a New Yorker essay, "Take Me Home." In it, Bradbury recalls his childhood in Illinois and the summer ritual of launching fire balloons into the sky with his grandfather. That moment, and the unspoken but powerful emotional bond between the boy and the old man, inspired Bradbury to write one of his most famous stories.
Twenty-five years later, I wrote “The Fire Balloons,” a story in which a number of priests fly off to Mars looking for creatures of good will. It is my tribute to those summers when my grandfather was alive. One of the priests was like my grandpa, whom I put on Mars to see the lovely balloons again, but this time they were Martians, all fired and bright, adrift above a dead sea.
Bradbury was a rare sort of futurist who yearned for a simpler, more human world, who reminded us to love one another. And for that, as well as his eloquence and imagination, I salute him.
BTW, here's a 2009 blog post in which I explore an idea that Bradbury introduced in the novel Fahrenheit 451, wall-to-wall television screens.