Ray Bradbury's Virtual Reality Universe
Tea Party Economist
by Gary North: Soros:
Europe's Three-Month Window
Tuesday, June 6.
published on November 9, 2000 on Lew Rockwell's site. It was already
eight years old.
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 1951, 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 nine years old. Someone 16 months before, in my fourth-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:
X . . . x . . . x . . . x."
On my first
Bradbury night, 18 months later, they broadcast a radio adaptation
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.
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.
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.
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, three 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.
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
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."
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
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
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
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.
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.
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, you 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.
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,
A pretty hip
North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money. Visit http://www.garynorth.com.
He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible.
2000 Gary North
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