Ray Bradbury: prophet of nostalgia

Where most sci-fi writers create an alternative present or imaginary future, the great Bradbury longed for a future that would recapture the past.

As a general rule, science fiction tends to be located in an imagined future or alternative present. The settings may be utopian or dystopian and the themes innumerable, but a constant hallmark is that of potentiality: how the world could be different to how it is now. This is why, in death, science-fiction writers are often lauded as prophets. Isaac Asimov explored the domains of robotic artificial intelligence before it started to become a reality; Arthur C Clarke is credited with devising the idea of the geostationary artificial satellite; and Philip K Dick doubted objective reality before postmodernism and cyberspace came along.

Ray Bradbury, the author of The Martian Chronicles (1950) and Fahrenheit 451 (1953), who died earlier this month, leaves a more peculiar legacy. Paradoxically, his work longed for a future which would recapture the past. He was a prophet of nostalgia.

Bradbury’s work did have the familiar sci-fi staples of his era – spacecraft, aliens, revolutionary technology – and he superficially embraced modernity. He was, for instance, a lifelong champion of manned spaceflight, as he explained in 1979: ‘Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four came out 30 years ago this summer. Not a mention of spaceflight in it, as an alternative to Big Brother, a way to get away from him. That proves how myopic the intellectuals of the 1930s and 1940s were about the future. They didn’t want to see something as exciting and soul-opening and as revelatory as space travel. Because we can escape, we can escape, and escape is very important, very tonic, for the human spirit. We escaped Europe 400 years ago and it was all to the good.’ This theme of escape pervades Ray Bradbury’s oeuvre. And this avowal to escape was the consequence of a desire to escape the modern world.

This is seen most clearly in The Martian Chronicles, an episodic novel charting the colonisation of the Red Planet from 1999 to 2026. The book conveys a feeling of revulsion at life on Earth, combined ironically with a pining for a simpler, pre-nuclear age. Bradbury dispensed with any pretence at scientific realism here, giving Mars a breathable atmosphere, seas and canals. The cities on the planet resemble an American Mid-West from the 1920s, while their residents have a spirit comparable to the real-life Pioneers. One character, a luggage-store proprietor, notes in 2005 of the nuclear war that has broken out on Earth: ‘We came up here to get away from things – politics, the atom bomb, war, pressure groups, prejudice, laws.’

Elsewhere in the novel, colonisers are reunited with relatives they thought were long dead. This turns out to be a illusion devised by indigenous Martians hostile to Earthly invaders, yet still it demonstrates on behalf of the protagonists and the author a yearning for times gone by. Like the Puritans who ‘escaped Europe 400 years ago’, these settlers wanted to escape not so much to create a new life, but, like the Amish, to preserve an old way of life.

The Martian Chronicles is also a damning allegory of colonisation – pointedly, the indigenous Martians die from chicken pox brought by the colonisers – and by virtue of this, a reproach to modernity itself. ‘Do you remember what happened to Mexico when Cortez and his very fine good friends arrived from Spain? A whole civilisation destroyed by greedy, righteous bigots’, remarks one repentant settler. ‘It’s simply me against the whole crooked grinding set-up on Earth. They’ll be flopping their filthy atom bombs up here, fighting for bases to have wars. Isn’t it enough they’ve ruined one planet without ruining another?’ A character repeats this apocalyptic assessment in The Illustrated Man (1951): ‘We’ve brought the Earth and civilisation down about our heads. None of the cities are worth saving - they’ll be radioactive for a century. Earth is over and done with. Its age is through.’ The fear of nuclear war casts a long shadow over Bradbury’s work, and his recurring theme that humanity has ‘ruined the planet’ is, alas, now widely accepted.

The Martian Chronicles concludes in much the same manner as Fahrenheit 451. Just as that book’s villain-turned-hero Guy Montag, the ‘fireman’ who had burnt books, escaped a war-torn metropolis to the wilderness to begin a life all over again, so The Martian Chronicles ends with ‘The Million-Year Picnic’ in which a family flees from Earth on the last rocket ship. The dad explains to his children: ‘Life on Earth never settled down to doing anything very good. Science ran too far ahead of us too quickly, and the people got lost in a mechanical wilderness, like children making over pretty things, gadgets, helicopters, rockets; emphasising the wrong items, emphasising machines instead of how to run the machines. Wars got bigger and bigger and finally killed Earth… That’s what we ran away from.’ The family have become the new Martians, ready to build civilisation anew – or as it is commonly written these days, ‘civilisation’, with those doubting and contemptuous inverted commas.

This disquiet with technological progress, and the uses to which it was put, manifests itself recurrently in Bradbury’s work. In his story ‘The Pedestrian’, from The Golden Apples of the Sun (1953), a man is arrested for the double crime of going for a walk and not owning a television set. Fahrenheit 451 features a society dominated by enormous television sets, interactive programmes and ‘Seashell ear thimbles’: miniature radio receivers for the ears that played constant broadcasts of advertisements, music and news, designed to block out the sounds of the real world.

Bradbury seems here to have anticipated the Bluetooth headset, and a case can be made for Fahrenheit 451‘s gloomy prescience on a grander scale. Here we have a future America saturated by mind-numbing popular culture, which is transient and stupefying. Much like the one depicted in Brave New World, a society based on multi-sensory entertainment and hedonism is one also stripped of depth and spirituality. As one protagonist in Fahrenheit 451 sardonically observes: ‘School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate… Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches.’ That seems to me a pretty good description of the Twitter and iPod generations, who can’t seem to go anywhere without fidgeting and fiddling with their gadgets, relaying every inane minutiae of their fleeting lives. So perhaps this Cassandra was right to be anxious of what lay in store. His nostalgic laments certainly seem appropriate for our era of the ‘kidult’, the ‘skool disco’ and Friends Reunited.

Yet this nostalgia didn’t detract from his writing. You can enjoy Bradbury’s evocative gothic science-fiction, magical tales and lamentations for the ‘good old days’ just as you can enjoy Tolkien without necessarily agreeing that we should all return to the pastoral. But we expect this from Tolkien. Just as science fiction normally takes place in the future, sword-and-sorcery fantasy is invariably set in a pre-industrial past. This is what makes Bradbury something of an anomaly, different also to Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and Anthony Burgess, whose dystopian novels all correspondingly envisaged nightmarish futures, but prescribed no remedy. There is no explicit lamentation for the past in their famous works, merely a depiction of an awful present.

‘He boasted that he had a total recall of his earliest years, including the moment of his birth’, according to Bradbury’s obituary in the New York Times. And themes of youth and innocence and simplicity, particularly of a Mid-West variety, permeated his work, especially in his semi-autobiographical Dandelion Wine (1957). Bradbury certainly displayed an unease with modernity in real life: he lived in the same house for more than 50 years, didn’t get on an aeroplane until he was 62, was scared to take elevators, and described the internet as ‘a waste of time’. Yet in my opinion, Ray Bradbury was an exceptionally entertaining writer and very humanistic in the process, being strong on characterisation. Science fiction is often weak in this department, frequently being too preoccupied with the big ideas. These ideas in sci-fi have often displayed the desire to go onwards and upwards. Bradbury sought instead to escape and go back.

Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland. Read his blog here.

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Footnotes and references

Cited works:

The Martian Chronicles (1950), Flamingo, 1995
The Illustrated Man (1951), Harper Voyager, 2008
Fahrenheit 451 (1953), Corgi edition, 1970