At 80, Ray Bradbury still fighting the future he foresaw

Author of prescient 'Fahrenheit 451' sees some of his biggest fears coming true

By Roger Moore

A nation sits, transfixed before a box, lured by interactive infotainment that invites viewers to apply, join in, become a cutthroat "survivor" or be meekly "voted off" by their compliant peers. We tap out bloodless conversations at our keyboards, removed from genuine human interaction. We sit in the hot seat, ready and willing to spit out facts without context or face the consequences.

What an odd way to celebrate Ray Bradbury's 80th birthday. At least we aren't burning books. Today.

"I don't try to describe the future," Bradbury has often said. "I try to prevent it."

Bradbury, America's most celebrated science-fiction writer, finds a lot worth preventing these days.

"I'm working to prevent a future where there's no education," Bradbury said from his Los Angeles home. "The system we have has gone to hell, so I'm trying to encourage teachers and parents to rebuild it. We're not teaching kids to read and write and think."

The author of "Fahrenheit 451" reaches back to his most famous novel for his coup de grace.

"There's no reason to burn books if you don't read them."

Bradbury, a Waukegan native and the man The New York Times called "the world's greatest science-fiction writer," creator of such seminal works as "The Martian Chronicles," "Dandelion Wine," "The Illustrated Man" and "Something Wicked This Way Comes" turned 80 on August 22. After 60-plus years of creating, he's still incredibly active, with a backlog of work assembled just in the time since he had a stroke last November.

"I've just finished two novels and a new short story, all while I was sick," he said, with more than a hint of defiance in his voice. "To hell with it."

His colleague, science and science-fiction writer Ben Bova, author of "Return to Mars and Venus," laughed upon hearing that. Bova describes Bradbury as "one of the great writers, and one of the few stylists, of science fiction. Most science fiction is written in a very naturalistic prose, but Ray has always been distinctive in the way he uses the language."

That style comes through, even in the titles of many of Bradbury's best works-"Dark They Were, and Goldeneyed" and "Here There Be Tygers." His gift for sliding big themes into short stories is unmatched, such as when a family deals with the consequences of leaving gadgetry to raise its children in "The Veldt."

His ability to move the reader to the edge of his or her seat rivals Stephen King's in such tales as "The Wind," about a man people regard as mad because he thinks he has learned the secrets of the weather gods and is pursued across the globe by deadly storms.

Talking to Bradbury, you get the distinct impression that he has kind of gone off the idea of the future. And, truth be told, he was never the serious futurist that Bova and British science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke are. He truly wasn't trying to envision Tomorrow with a capital T.

"He's always been a writer who wanted to improve the human condition by showing the way people really behave," Bova said. "He's not interested in rocket ships and ray guns except as a means of putting people in a different milieu."

Rereading Bradbury's fiction makes clear that he was always as interested in preserving or illuminating the past as pondering the future. Still, his attitudes about change can come as a shock to one familiar only with his fame and not his writing.

On the Internet: "This thing is bound to fail. Napster's out there, stealing everyone blind. They're stealing people's work. They should be put in jail, all of them."

"All this electronic stuff is remote, removed from you. The Internet is just a big scam the computer companies cooked up to make you get a computer into every home."

On the written word: "I still love books. Nothing a computer can do can compare to a book. You can't really put a book on the Internet. Three companies have offered to put books by me on the Net, and I said, 'If you can make something that has a nice jacket, nice paper with that nice smell, then we'll talk.' All the computer can give you is a manuscript. People don't want to read manuscripts. They want to read books. Books smell good. They look good. You can press it to your bosom. You can carry it in your pocket."

On the "dumbing down" of America: "We've got to dumb America back up again… You grade the teachers, starting at the kindergarten level. Get the kids off to a better start so that teachers in the later grades don't have to go back to square one with them."

His biggest current project? Another big step toward the past, a radio drama series on NPR.

But lest you think he has become an old stick in the mud, consider these words from "Dandelion Wine," published in 1957:

"It is the privilege of old people to seem to know everything. But it's an act and a mask."

From the same novel: "The first thing you learn in life is you're a fool. The last thing you learn in life is you're the same fool."

Bradbury's philosophy is contained in his books. Take his undisputed masterpiece, 1953's 'Fahrenheit 451,' a novel about a future in which TV has spread to three walls of the house, is totally interactive and has replaced the stored knowledge of books. Bored teens cruise the streets, shooting people for kicks. Bored adults watch and participate in TV or slip on their personal stereos-25 years before the WalkMan, drive-by shootings or interactive TV.

Books are forbidden, objects to be feared and burned by "firemen" like the book's protagonist, Guy Montag. The title? That's the temperature at which paper ignites, a fact that was pretty much unknown before the book came out. Now it's ingrained in the culture.

"I see 'Fahrenheit' all over the place, these days," Bradbury said. "Programs like 'Jeopardy' and 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire' are ridiculous. They're the stupidest shows in history. They're making us dumber. They don't give us information, they give us facts, factoids. You don't learn who Napoleon was and how he was motivated. You learn what year he was born, and when he died. That's useless."

"'Millionaire' gives you questions that are so dumb that I can't believe they're going to give anyone a million dollars for telling me where Poughkeepsie is."

Is Bradbury's vision of a totalitarianism borne of TV-inspired stupidity, a history that rulers can alter at will because nothing is written down, that far off the mark?

"Who but Bradbury saw ahead the abbreviated world according to USA Today and People Magazine?" film scholar Gerald Peary has observed.

The Internet's free flow of information may make it harder for dictators to suppress and inhibit access to that information. But, as Bradbury points out, the ephemeral nature of Net data-alterable, erasable-could render the truth something just as fluid.

But Bradbury remains, as always, the optimist. He says he remains an ever-hopeful student of human nature and an idealist at heart.

Reprinted with permission of Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
From the Peoria Journal Star
August 2000