When does science fiction work even when it’s broken? “The Veldt” is the opening short story in Ray Bradbury’s classic collection The Illustrated Man, and it’s a highly effective story that doesn’t make much sense if you try to take it apart. “The Veldt” appears to be Bradbury’s reaction to the deployment of television in 1950. Essentially, the tale is an allegory that says the new technology loved by the young will kill off the older generation.
“The Veldt” could be filmed today, modernizing the story, and the allegory would work with the Internet, computer games, or even iPods. If you take the story apart looking for the science fictional technology that creates lions that dine on parents you won’t find it. Bradbury hopes his slight of hand distraction will keep the reader from looking behind the curtain, but I think many hardcore SF readers get hung up on that and shout, “Cheat!”
Ray Bradbury is often a science fiction writer that non science fiction readers think of when they think of a science fiction writer. Most readers don’t like science, not even the toy science of science fiction, so they readily respond to Bradbury allegories of anti-science. If Bradbury’s goal was to fight off new technology and preserve the quaint minds of the 1940s he of course failed.
“The Veldt” is a shocking story for the time. The children kill the parents. And Bradbury was reacting to TV of the late 1940s, which was incredibly innocent. Most TV at the time was local in production, featuring puppet shows for kids, gardening and cooking shows for moms, and wrestling for dads. What television really killed was the short story, but I don’t know if Bradbury knew that at the time or even feared it. The half-hour TV show killed the pulp magazines that filled the newsstands of the time with hundreds of titles.
Technology and change does kill off the culture of the previous generation, and I think Bradbury sensed that. That’s why the story is so popular, getting made into a movie in 1969, and is scheduled for a remake in 2010. This story gets the study guide treatment on many web sites that create literary summaries for kids needing to write school papers. There are even sites that will write a paper about “The Veldt” for you. This implies the story is studied in schools. How many science fiction stories can claim that honor?
If the TV of the late 1940s scared Bradbury, what kind of story would he have written if we could time travel back to 1950 and spend an evening with young Ray and show him a high definition TV featuring episodes of True Blood and Dexter? Or even show him the kind of porn children can easily get on their homework computers. I love Dexter and True Blood, but I’ve got 50 years of television evolution to ready my mind for those shows. Those TV programs would make Ray’s noggin explode.
Would 1950 Bradbury recognize the sophisticated art of Dexter, a show featuring an appealing serial killer, or recoil in horror at the kinky sex and violence of True Blood? Even if we gave him kid friendly shows like Hanna Montana wouldn’t he still be shocked at the cultural changes? I’m listening to The Green Hills of Earth by Robert A. Heinlein, a collection of short stories from the same time period. The people in those stories don’t exist anymore. The culture, slang, speech patterns, art, theories about life and science, and so on are long gone.
The mental and cultural life I grew up with in the 1960s is gone too. My mind has evolved with television, but it hasn’t for popular music. I’m still stuck back in 1965 with the Byrds, Barry McGuire, Petula Clark, and The Mamas and the Papas. I’m sure the teenagers of today would be willing to symbolically feed my kind to the lions, just like my generation wanted to with our parents.
The children in “The Veldt” horrify the 1950 readers of Bradbury like my generation was horrified by the real-life Eric Harris and Dylan Kiebold, the Columbine shooters, when we wanted to ban violent video games. Whether the warning is allegorical or real life, the future keeps on rolling towards us and we never even bother to step out of the street.
Science fiction can present scary stories but do we ever really listen to them? “The Veldt” is even taught in schools. But will a young generation ever exclaim they’ve had enough change and draw their own line in the sand? Despite all the protests of conservatives, liberal thought keeps on evolving. On one hand many science fiction stories are cautionary tales warning us about the future, but on the other hand, the other tales of science fiction are thrilling adventures of living in a new world.
How many kids reading “The Veldt” secretly wanted their own version of that high-tech nursery?
JWH – 2/26/9