I was a boy in 1964, when I watched the television specials about the New York World's Fair. The shooting of President Kennedy had just begun to dampen the spirits of popular culture, to be offset by a new sound of popular music headed to our shores from across the Atlantic. Things were still looking bright, and the world of the future, of the year 2000, would be brighter than ever. Dad would go to work on an automated highway, Mom would prepare meals to order in a computerized kitchen while talking on the picturephone. We would go to our favorite weekend hideaway in the family's flying car. The possibilities were endless.
That was also the year I checked a collection of short stories out of the library, entitled S is for Space. I was interested in the future and what it held for me, especially if I was to be an astronaut when I grew up. But the utopia of the World's Fair was eschewed in those pages, for a somewhat dystopian vision, one that took pains to show how the future, while not altogether horrible, would not be a garden of paradise as we were led to believe. The future of Ray Bradbury's short stories, and as I would discover in novels like Dandelion Wine and Fahrenheit 451, was one still subject to the frailties of the human condition. Man's vices, as well as his virtues, would dictate his fortunes and his fate, and would do so more than would any machine.
The image shown here is that of the original hardcover book that I first read. The "spacesuit" illustration is as undated now as it was then, as are the stories contained therein. Bradbury wrote 451 in 1954, and ten years later, was horrified at the sight of a woman walking her dog with her husband on a Beverly Hills sidewalk, the earpiece of a transistor radio in one ear, oblivious to all that was going on around her. Certain predictions of how technology would affect the future were happening sooner than he expected. (Kingsley Amis, New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction, 1960).
Indeed, it was technology itself that this writer of the future lamented. “We have too many cellphones. We've got too many internets. We have got to get rid of those machines. We have too many machines now.” To the end, he would not extend his works to be published for Kindle and other e-formats.
Neither did Bradbury consider himself a writer of science fiction.
First of all, I don't write science fiction. I've only done one science fiction book and that's Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. It was named so to represent the temperature at which paper ignites. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it's fantasy. It couldn't happen, you see? That's the reason it's going to be around a long time — because it's a Greek myth, and myths have staying power.
One can only imagine his skepticism at the present fascination with vampires and zombies and the apocalypse, or some or all of the above. Would he imagine us taking such prospects lightly, romanticizing the dark and ugly side of humanity, for the purpose of merchandizing and mere entertainment?
How will we look at the future? What are the choices we make? The answer may be found in the writings of a man who knew us all too well.
(Note to self: rent The Butterfly Effect on pay-per-view this weekend.)