Maybe you’ve heard about virtual reality. It’s the hot new thing in video game technology. The player is handed an electronic weapons system, enters an image room, and finds himself in a computerized universe of robots and spaceships and fantasy.
In 1949, I entered such a room. In my mind. Ray Bradbury took me there.
I can date my own literary transition from childhood to adulthood with that visit. I was seven years old. Someone in my third-grade class had told me of a new radio program called “Dimension X.” It was a science fiction show. I had already become addicted to weekly T.V. reruns of the old “Flash Gordon” serials, so I tuned in. I shall never forget the sound of the announcer’s voice, enhanced by a new technology (that I had not yet heard of), the tape recorder. The echo of that voice is still with me:
“Dimension X . . . x . . . x . . . x.”
On my first night, they broadcast a radio adaptation of “The Veldt,” Bradbury’s haunting story about two children, a brother and sister, who sat in what today would be called a virtual reality room. With their minds they could conjure up any environment they chose, and what they chose, day after day, month after month, was the blazing sun of the African veldt.
Concerned, their parents forbade them to go into the room any more. The children protested vigorously, to no avail. Then, one night, they called for help, seemingly from the room. Their parents rushed in, found themselves alone in the veldt, and then found the door locked. The lions roared. The mother screamed.
The next day, a visitor came by and asked the children if their parents were home. No, the children said, watching the lions chewing in the distance on their prey, their parents weren’t home. Reality was no longer virtual in that room of the future.
I do not remember ever missing another broadcast of “Dimension X” until we moved out of state in 1950 to a culturally deprived community that did not broadcast it.
The other story that I remember most clearly is “Mars is Heaven,” the equally terrifying Bradbury story of a future expedition to Mars. The earthlings land near a town just like one member’s birthplace. In that small town dwelt relatives from his youth, all long dead. They invited each crew member to spend the night in one of the lovely old houses.
That night, one crew member thinks to himself, “How can this be? What if all this is an illusion? What if my environment is the product of my own mind? What if my mind is being manipulated by something that wants to destroy me?” He gets out of bed to return to the ship. Before he leaves the bedroom, he is stopped by a relative. “Where are you going?” “I was just going out for a walk.” “No you weren’t.” He never makes it back to the ship.
I heard that broadcast only once, over four decades ago. The image of that bedroom on Mars, like the image of those two children sitting in their imagination room, is etched more deeply in my mind than almost anything I did or saw in my youth. Ray Bradbury manipulated my mind almost as skillfully as those Martians manipulated the minds of that crew or those two children manipulated the images of that room. During those half-hour broadcasts, my mind became virtual reality.
I met Bradbury only once, five years later, when I was not quite a teenager. I had discovered his masterpieces, The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles, from which those radio dramas had come. I had moved from radio dramas to serious literature. Let no one doubt that Ray Bradbury’s short stories are serious literature. Some are masterpieces. But they can fool you if you’re only seven years old. The reality of a masterpiece gets disguised as a scary story for children.
The mother of a friend knew how much I loved Bradbury’s stories. One day she invited me to an evening lecture at the Hermosa Beach, California, library. I have no idea why he came to a little local library to give a lecture to a handful of people. Needless to say, I went. I even got him to sign my paperback copy of The Illustrated Man. I still own it.
He had just returned from Ireland, where he had written the screenplay for John Huston’s Moby Dick. He told us the story of the driver who would pick him up every morning at a hotel far up a hillside and drive him to the sea, where the film was being shot, and then drive him back at the end of the day. He was the best driver Bradbury had ever seen: the very incarnation of safety.
One day he told Bradbury that he planned to give up smoking for Lent. Lent arrived, and so did the driver. Like a madman, he drove down the narrow road, racing around the unfenced curves, as if there were no tomorrow, which Bradbury began to suspect there might not be. Bradbury figured that he was witnessing the worst case of nicotine withdrawal ever recorded. “Maybe you should go back to smoking,” he suggested in panic. The driver replied: “I didn’t give up smoking. I gave up the other instead.”
“What other?” Bradbury cried. “Drinking.” Then Bradbury figured it out: the reason why his driver had been so careful is that he had been drunk every time. Now he was stone cold sober, and he no longer had any fear of a drunk driving accident. The reality of the man’s sobriety had overcome the illusion.
I ask myself: Why can I still see that car swerving down that mountain road? I can’t remember what Bradbury looked like or sounded like, but I can see that car. The reality of Ray Bradbury did not penetrate my mind deeply enough to take up permanent residence, but 38 years later, I cannot evict that sober Irishman as he races down that mountain road.
Fifteen years later, I saw Bradbury again from a back row in a college auditorium. He came to the University of California, Riverside, to give a lecture. The auditorium was not packed, but there were hundreds of students there.
In the late 1960’s, technology was out (except for stereos, of course); visions were in (including those induced by such laboratory products as LSD). Pessimism about society was in; the “can-do” technocratic optimism of the Kennedy years was out.
So what did Bradbury talk about? The wonders of the fantasy world of his youth that science and technology were making real, year by year. His message was clear and delivered with unbounded enthusiasm: The virtual reality of our imaginations can become the reality of our daily lives. His lecture communicated his excitement at living in a world in which men would go to the moon (which they did shortly after his speech).
The audience cheered. Against all their pessimistic instincts, against every half-baked doom-and-gloom technology scenario they had accepted as prophetic reality, they cheered. Their reality that afternoon was what Bradbury was dreaming about: a world of technological marvels about to happen, and happen in the lifetimes of those of us who were sitting in that auditorium. Just by talking he had converted that auditorium into a virtual reality room.
I was a graduate student at the time, a teaching assistant in the Western Civilization program. I had heard these students lament the dark, Orwellian world of technology that surely lay before them. But in one 30-minute speech by a man who had never been to college (as he told us), the sun shone through. They cheered the sunlight — the golden apples of Ray Bradbury’s sun.
I walked out of that auditorium asking myself: “Is there any other person on earth who could have delivered that speech and still gained the applause of those kids, indoctrinated as they are on technological cynicism and third-rate social prophecy? Would they have believed anyone else who said such things?” I knew the answer as soon as I asked it. No. Well, not quite no. Maybe Isaac Asimov could have pulled it off, but he was probably too busy writing to go to a place like Riverside, California, just to amuse a bunch of undergraduates for half an hour.
Ray Bradbury sometimes delights us with happy visions of electronic grandmothers. With equal skill, he terrifies us with the dark side of the human imagination. When he writes, something wicked sometimes comes. And he has been doing this for so long that those of us who grew up in the “golden age” of science fiction can hardly remember a time when he was not there.
In popular music, they speak of “crossovers,” singers who move from country music charts to pop music charts. Bradbury crossed over long ago — from science fiction into conventional fiction, but all with a trace of fantasy. Start a Bradbury story, and you don’t know where you’re headed. You only know this: after you’re finished, will be unlikely ever to forget where you’ve been. The man plays “etch a sketch” with your mind.
How does he do it? I would tell you if I knew. No, come to think of it, I wouldn’t. I would imitate him shamelessly and never pass on the secret — Ray Bradbury’s non-technological secret of virtual reality.
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I wrote this in June, 1992. Thanks to Lew Rockwell for allowing me to offer it as a supplement to yesterday’s story in the New York Times.
I’ll add one more vignette. It was published originally in Reader’s Digest. Bradbury was at Disney World in Florida, which of course he loves. There, 50 feet away or so, he saw Alice, with her long blonde hair, home from Wonderland. He waved. “Hey, Alice!” She waved back. “Hey, Ray Bradbury.”
A pretty hip Alice.
November 9, 2000
Gary North is the author of a ten-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible. The latest volume is Sacrifice and Dominion: An Economic Commentary on Acts. The series can be downloaded free of charge at www.freebooks.com.