Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ray Bradbury: August 22, 1920

Ray Bradbury

Happy 90th Birthday!

SF writers generally deny that they are prophets: they are just trying to write some stories about science and technology and people. As I have suggested before, I see two basic types of SF: the "what if" story and the "if this goes on" story. The first type occurs when the author asks "what if a giant asteroid" were to collide with the earth and tells a story that answers that question. In the second type, the author learns that the human population now takes fewer years to double its population than it has in the past: this would lead to a story that describes what might happen if this goes on for another century. In 1953, Ray Bradbury published a short story titled "The Murderer," which belongs in the "if this goes on" category, and I think he got it right--this is pure prophecy.

The murderer in the story is Albert Brock. He has just arrived at a mental institution and we sit in when he is interviewed by a psychiatrist. Brock is not a serial killer, at least not a serial killer of humans; in fact he hasn't killed a single person. He is the one who insists he is a murderer; his victims are certain types of electronic devices. Keep in mind that this was written in 1953.

His victims are radios, TVs, telephones, intercoms, phonographs, and especially the radio wrist watch, a communication device. As I read the story, my mind insisted on substituting cell phone or mobile phone for wrist radio.

". . . it was music by Mozzek in every restaurant; music and commercials on the buses I rode to work. When it wasn't music, it was interoffice communications, and my horror chamber of a radio wrist watch [cell phone] on which my friends and my wife phoned every five minutes. What is there about such 'conveniences' that makes them so temptingly convenient? The average man thinks, Here I am, time on my hands, and here on my wrist is a wrist telephone [cell phone], so why not just buzz old Joe up. eh? 'Hello, hello!' I love my friends, wife, humanity very much, but when one minute my wife calls to say, 'Where are you now, dear?' and a friend calls and says, 'got the best off-color joke to tell you. Seems there was a guy--' and a stranger calls and cries out, 'This is the Find-Fax Poll. What gum are you chewing at this very instant?' Well!"

. . . . . . . . . .

Desperate, Brock begins by destroying all of the electronic communication devices around him. And then he got his Idea:

"Why didn't I start a solitary revolution, deliver man from certain 'conveniences'? 'Convenient for who?" I cried. Convenient for friends: 'Hey, Al, thought I'd call you from the locker room out here at Green Hills. Just made a sockdolager hole in one! A hole in one, Al! A beautiful day. Having a shot of whiskey now. Thought you'd want to know, Al!' Convenient for my office, so when I'm in the field with my radio car there's no moment when I'm not in touch. In touch! There's a slimy phrase. Touch, hell. Gripped! Pawed, rather. Mauled and massaged and pounded by FM voices. . ."

The last paragraph of the story horrifies me.

The psychiatrist returns to his office. His diagnosis:

"Seems completely disoriented, but convivial. Refuses to accept the simplest realities of his environment and work with them. . .

Three phones rang. A duplicate wrist radio in his desk drawer buzzed like a wounded grasshopper. The intercom flashed a pink light and click-clicked. Three phones rang. The drawer buzzed. Music blew in through the open door. The psychiatrist, humming quietly, fitted the new wrist radio to his wrist, flipped the intercom, talked a moment, picked up one telephone, talked, picked up another telephone, talked, picked up the third telephone, talked, touched the wrist-radio button, talked calmly and quietly, his face cool and serene, in the middle of the music and the lights flashing, the two phones ringing again, and his hands moving, and wrist radio buzzing, and the intercoms talking, and voices speaking from the ceiling. And he went on quietly this way through the reminder of a cool, air-conditioned, and long afternoon; telephone, wrist radio, intercom, telephone, wrist radio, intercom, telephone, wrist radio, intercom, telephone, wrist radio, intercom, telephone, wrist radio, intercom, telephone, wrist radio. . ."

Of course, there's no computer and email, Facebook and Twitter, but remember, SF writers really aren't prophets.


  1. I know you wrote this ages ago but I thought I'd reply anyway. I stumbled upon this cause I googled 'Ray Bradbury wristwatch', trying to find the name of this short story that I had done a book report or something at school. I'd basically been having the same thoughts, the message behind the story had always stuck with me, even if the name of the story hadn't.

    The only thing I think he may have got wrong is that it's not a wristwatch (or even cellphone) that is 'temptingly convenient'. I don't think it's a physical piece of technology at all. It's software, web 2.0, it's Facebook and Twitter.

    Not everyone has a "radio wristwatch" but they'll have something that they can use Facebook with. You probably wouldn't phone someone up to tell them an 'off colour joke' but you'd definitely put it on Facebook. Facebook is also where you get your 'Find Fax' polls.

    Man, he really is scary how close he's got it though. Thanks for this post.

  2. Anonymous,

    I would go one step further, now that I think about it, and say that it's the concept of instant, continuous, and relentless communication, rather than any particular piece of hardware or software that's most important in the story.

    I wonder if Bradbury's use of the wrist telephone was influenced by the _Dick Tracy_ comic strip in which the police had wristradios and later a wrist TV device.