In the United States, our lives have been steeped in science fiction, from the days of “Buck Rogers” and the cheesy B-movies of the 1950s to the phenomena of “Star Trek,” “The Matrix” and more recent films based on a variety of sci-fi and fantasy works. Yet, for many decades, the genre was sneered at.
Ray Bradbury turned that around.
He elevated the form to literature. He packed it with humanity, and he pointed out – to paraphrase the cartoon character Pogo – that we humans had “met the enemy, and he is us.”
An uncomfortable portion of the world Bradbury created, in novels such as “Fahrenheit 451,” has come to pass. Every time I see someone shambling down the street, staring blankly into a hand-held device, I visualize those two telescreen figures from the movie version of “Fahrenheit 451” looking down at Julie Christie and saying, “Linda, you’re absolutely fantastic!”
And I visualize her, staring back, vacuously.
My favorite piece by Bradbury is the short story “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains,” from the collection “The Martian Chronicles.” It’s about an automated house that lives on, pointlessly, after its occupants have been vaporized in a nuclear war.
It was published in 1950, proposing such far-out concepts as machines that audibly tell you to wake up, monitor the weather, activate the kitchen equipment to make breakfast. (All that exists today and is taken for granted). His house of seven decades into the future was cleaned by a small army of mechanical mice that rolled across the floor, picking up debris. (Do you own a Roomba?)
The house offers to recite a favorite poem by Sara Teasdale for its missing owner, since, being no longer in existence, he has declined to specify one.
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;
Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
if mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.
Do I hear the voice of Siri?