Farewell Summer – Ray Bradbury 1920 – 2012

When did I start reading the short stories of Ray Bradbury? I can’t recall exactly, though I do remember seeing books of his lying on the end table at my Uncle’s home. “R is for Rocket”, “S is for Space”, “The Martian Chronicles”…Irresistible, especially for a young boy. It’s also been quite a long time since I’d read any of Ray Bradbury’s stories, I suspect that I’d last picked up one of his books in high school. When I’d heard of his death in June of this year I thought I might borrow a book from the library and re-read those stories with my son, aged 9, at bedtime…or perhaps not. The stories that I most clearly remember are “All Summer in a Day” and “The Veldt”.

The story “All Summer in a Day” is set on on Venus where it is nearly always raining, except for a brief time once every seven years when the clouds break and the sun reveals itself for only a few hours before being obscured again, and the torrential rains resume. A girl, Margot, is taunted and ostracized because she claims to remember what the sun looks and feels like, having come from Earth with her parents when when she was only five. The other children in her class have no real memory of the sun, having been born on Venus, and having been only two when the sun briefly appeared through the clouds. In spite, the other children lock Margot in a closet on the day that the sun is expected to appear. When the sun does appear the children quickly forget about Margot and are lost in play outside. When the clouds return and the rains resume the children trudge back indoors, and only then remember Margot. They return to the closet and slowly open the door to let Margot out. The story was originally published in 1954, prior to the Soviet Venera and U.S. Mariner probes that would reveal the intense atmospheric pressure and a temperature that would make life on Venus impossible. Had the setting been some unnamed cloud covered planet around a distant sun there would not be the dissonance with our current understanding of Venus. However, the setting is incidental to the story. As with other of Bradbury’s stories, the science fiction aspects are just a way for him to explore human relationships. In “All Summer in a Day” Bradbury explores the cruelty that can sometimes be shown to an outsider.

The family in “The Veldt” lives in a modern home with every possible convenience. There are machines to cook and clean, even to scrub your back as you take a bath. The parents have also installed a nursery which projects a three dimensional simulation of any scene the occupant can imagine, complete with realistic smells and sounds. As the story begins the parents have become concerned with the children’s use of the nursery which appears to have become fixed on projecting a scene from the African veldt, with lions in the distance tearing into their prey. Gone are Aladdin, the cow jumping over the moon, Pegasus, and other staples of childhood imagination. The parents have also become concerned that the house has supplanted them, since it performs all the cooking, cleaning and entertainment. After consulting with a child psychologist who shares their concerns, they inform the children that they will be shutting down the nursery and other conveniences and take a vacation from the automated world of their home. Understandably, this goes over poorly with the children who throw a tantrum. The parents relent and turn the nursery back on briefly while they go to pack for their vacation trip. While packing, the parents hear the children crying for them to come quickly. As they run through the house in search of the children, they enter the nursery and the door slams behind them. “Don’t let them switch off the nursery and the house” they hear their son Peter say. A while later the psychologist arrives at the home to find the children enjoying a picnic in the nursery. “Where are your father and mother?”, he asks. “Oh, they’ll be here directly” the children reply ominously. Ray Bradbury has been quoted as saying that he didn’t want to describe the future, he wanted to prevent it. “The Veldt” is a warning against a future where we become too dependent upon our inventions. In “The Veldt”, he seems to have anticipated the present proliferation of television, mobile devices and video games.

As I began to re-read these stories I came to the conclusion that I’m not quite ready to sit down with my son to read them at bedtime. Perhaps when he is a bit older. Bradbury’s world is one of quintessential Americana, yet just below the surface lies something dark and foreboding.

The sound of a band playing wakes you from a pleasant afternoon nap. Making your way downstairs you notice that the house is empty. You open the front door, step out on the porch, and to your amazed eyes you see your family, friends and neighbors gathered together. A marching band strikes up a tune. What could possibly be the reason? It’s your special day. A parade forms with you as the leader, marching down to the water where a boat awaits…

Farewell Ray Bradbury…

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