Science fiction great Ray Bradbury, who died this morning in Los Angeles at age 91, started his writing career in the early 1940s, in an era when radios with tubes were state-of-the-art technology. But Bradbury envisioned a different world, one in which scientific and technological advances radically altered human existence, and not necessarily in positive ways.
Though he published 59 books in his lifetime, including the classic story collections The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man, for most of us the Bradbury work that probably resonated most intensely is his 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury imagined a dystopian future in which a society obsessed with mind-numbing electronic entertainment forbids reading as too controversy-provoking, and employs firemen and robotic hounds to sniff out and burn the few remaining personal libraries. In the end, that attempt to stamp out literature and knowledge is thwarted by free-thinking renegades, who each commit to memory a single great book, and then recite it to others.
Bradbury himself might have become one of those rebels. He envisioned humans colonizing Mars and helped Disney design Epcot Center’s Spaceship Earth. But in his own life, he was a quasi-Luddite who never bothered to get a driver’s license and who continued to pound out stories on a typewriter long after PCs had become ubiquitous. He famously loathed the Internet and automated teller machines, and dismissed video games as “male ego crap.” At his core, Bradbury the writer used the dazzling gadgetry of the future as a tool, to show us how the emotional machinery of humans worked. While he didn’t have that much faith in technology to solve our problems, he never gave up on believing in the individual’s ability to control his or her own destiny. As he told his authorized biographer Sam Weller in The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury:
“I don’t believe in optimism. I believe in optimal behavior. That’s a different thing. If you behave every day of your life to the top of your genetics, what can you do? Test it. Find out. You don’t know what you can do. You haven’t done it yet. So that’s optimal behavior. And when you behave in that way you have a feeling of optimism. You see, there’s a difference. Not to be optimistic, but to behave optimally. At the top of your lungs shout and listen to the echoes.”
Like his 1800s predecessor Jules Verne, who envisioned submarines and fax machines, Bradbury in the 1950s presciently imagined some of the technologies that we have today. I’m struck, for example, by how much the wall-sized television screens in Fahrenheit 451, which viewers could use to immerse themselves in interactive soap operas, resemble the immense flat-panel TVs in our dens today. Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute even have developed animated tattoos of the sort that decorated the skin of the central character of The Illustrated Man. Fortunately, inventors have yet to try recreating the Happiness Machine from Bradbury’s 1957 novel Dandelion Wine, which turns out to have the opposite effect on its users.
What was Bradbury’s most prescient novel or story? Tell us what you think below.