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Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world.
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
The legacy wagon is encircling the subject of Ray Bradbury on his passing. Liberals will be gazing back at his achievements such as Fahrenheit 451, a work Bradbury himself regards as his only science fiction book, and chew over the McCarthyist credentials (though it goes much deeper than that). Conservatives will be contemplating his critique of technology and its desensitising effects. The literati took and will take exception to his ‘pulp’ fame and how he sacrificed style and narrative to the ideas at hand, proving irritatingly didactic. ‘Few people love their ideas as much as Ray Bradbury loves his,’ wrote Ken Forrester in the Journal of General Education in the spring issue of 1976.
Bradbury has bequeathed a considerable body of work – 27 novels, hundreds of short stories, numerous plays, and screenplays including one for John Huston’s Moby Dick.
The Martian Chronicles (1950) showed the strut that comes with occupation and colonisation, something which the United States has accomplished with amnesiac brilliance. Besides, the earth itself was conspicuously under threat from nuclear annihilation. With true human ingenuity, destroying one form of existence is the precursor to the creation of another – a foreign planet offers the best environs for replicating humanity’s worst attributes. The Martians role-play as untainted Indians and are systematically wiped out by the effects of disease. The way is left open for the pioneers to create a new Eden.
When he is ventriloquising about worlds past or elsewhere, Bradbury echoes a suspicion of the existing one: we are unfit for the technology we produce. This is itself an engineered repudiation on Bradbury’s part, having himself been a previous follower of the technology cult. Novelists are entitled to veer.
There is much to admire in Albert Brock’s tendency to attack all manner of gadgets in ‘The Murderer’ (1953) or ecologically minded Jeff Spender’s preference for wood instead of chemical fires in ‘ – And the Moon Still be Bright’ of the Martian Chronicles. Such figures resist the networked, regulated society and those who provide its odious filling. Brock desperately wants to get off the choking grid. ‘The car radio cackling all day, Brock go there, Brock go there, Brock check in, Brock check out, okay Brock, hour lunch, Brock, lunch over, Brock, Brock, Brock.’ His earlier ‘Marionettes, Inc’ (1949) is the brilliant distillation of how technology can sap human contact, streamlining if not eliminating it all together. Robot duplicates replace actual partners. Intimacy is mimicked and avoided at the same time – enter the age of social media that replicates that with chilling, or perhaps simply numbing effect.
The disturbing feature of Fahrenheit 451 that finds truck with conservatives lies in its attack on the straitjacket of political correctness. Ignorance is self-inflicted – a society that ceases to read even before the state bothers to tell them to do so. Daniel J. Flynn in the American Conservative (Jan 4) tells us as much in a review of Bradbury’s legacy that is babbling (‘His life is the ultimate revenge of the nerd’) though pointed at stages. ‘Before Fahrenheit 451’s firemen came to burn books, the public deserted books.’ For Flynn, the ‘over-medicated, air-conditioned culture is awash in suicide, abortion, child neglect, and glassy-eyed passivity. Sound familiar?’ At least a few of the book burners do their utmost to memorize the contents of the books before the conflagration.
Jeremy Stahl’s note in Slate runs the line through Bradbury’s own conservative leanings, finding a less than subtle thinker on subjects which he otherwise tackled with a degree of aplomb. ‘In fact, he would have been made for a great Tea Party icon.’
A few bits Stahl has managed to tease out are worth noting. Before a Comic-Con panel in 2010, Bradbury slid into the loose world of political fantasy, sounding positively Martian. ‘President Reagan was our greatest president. He lowered the taxes and he gave the money back to the people.’ Plaudits have been dished out to George Bush as a necessary antidote, and bile on Michael Moore. Bradbury was particular peeved about Moore’s lack of inventiveness in picking the title for the polemical stomper Fahrenheit 9/11. ‘He copied my title; that’s what happened. That has nothing to do with my political opinions.’
For all those political effusions, Bradbury remains a deserved figure in the canon of dystopian literature. His instructiveness to a certain extent marred his message suggesting that a novelist is on better ground in portraying rather than screaming in the pulpit. He was not polished in describing those scenes, but then gain, only Aldous Huxley could have pulled that off. The grim life so often resists a smooth recounting, lodging itself in the dark subject. Nostalgia, then, is inevitable, and in Bradbury’s case, it was the world he grew up in – Waukegan, Illinois in 1920s small town America.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org