Revenge of the Nerd: It's Ray Bradbury's Future-We're Just Living in It

By Flynn, Daniel J. | The American Conservative, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Revenge of the Nerd: It's Ray Bradbury's Future-We're Just Living in It


Flynn, Daniel J., The American Conservative


Ray Bradbury would have made a great "Revenge of the Nerds" character alongside Gilbert, Lewis, Poindexter, Wormser, and Lamar Latrell, had he not been such a caricature. A four-eyed, zit-faced, bully bull's-eye gliding through Los Angeles on steel-wheeled rollerskates, Bradbury was a fanboy who forcefully demanded autographs and pictures from Hollywood's most glamorous stars. Nobody told the uncouth teenaged transplant from the Midwest that he was staring at his opposites when he cornered Marlene Dietrich, Clark Gable, and Judy Garland. The stargazer dared to become the star. His life is the ultimate revenge of the nerd.

The writer once rebelled against his nerd designation. Now he rebels against nerds themselves. Technology, the plaything of geeks, is Bradbury's punching bag. Seventy years and more of his short stories have taken readers from Nowheresville, Middle America to the ancient ruins of Mars, meeting along the way big, beautiful, tattooed women; Mexicans time-sharing a $59 vanilla leisure suit; and midgets achieving vertical liberation through funhouse mirrors. Within that gigantic oeuvre no theme is more, well, Bradburian than that of contraptions designed to make life better actually making it worse.

"I," three-centuries-dead William Lantry announces in 1948's "Pillar of Fire," "am an anachronism." Bradbury might well have been talking about himself. Science fiction's greatest living writer never bothered with a driver's license, regards video games as time wasters, refuses to unbind his books for electronic readers, and dismisses the computer as a highfalutin typewriter. In 1968 he missed receiving the Aviation-Space Writers' Robert Ball Memorial Award in person because fear of flying prevented him from arriving at Cape Canaveral from Los Angeles in time. The bard of Martian civilization didn't make it above the Earth's clouds until his seventh decade.

Even the emailed correspondence for this article reached Bradbury only through a human intermediary. Seeing "Ray Bradbury" appear in my inbox produced a momentary letdown akin to learning that Ted Nugent is a vegan or A.J. Foyt rides a bicycle. But the pay-no-attention-to-that-man-behind-thecurtain feeling evaporated with the comforting discovery that his daughter handles such modern communications for him.

For H.G. Wells and Edward Bellamy, utopia was the far future. Bradbury looks in the other direction. He sets his wayback machine to Green Town, America circa 1920. The son of a Swedish immigrant mother and a power lineman father, Bradbury cherishes a nostalgia for boyhood along Lake Michigan that would seem odd given the mama's boy wimpiness that made him a target for his peers. His family's poverty limited his opportunities; so hard up were the Bradburys that one older brother taken by 1918's influenza epidemic lies in an unmarked grave, while another older brother shared a bed with Ray in the makeshift living room/bedroom well into adulthood.

This time and place is nevertheless the Eden of Bradbury's fiction. This is perhaps most loudly pronounced in "Mars Is Heaven" (1948)--redubbed "The Third Expedition" in The Martian Chronicles (1950)--in which the red planet turning out to be heaven is overshadowed by the fact that heaven turns out to be small-town America.

The colonization of Mars is nothing new: it's the conquest of the North American continent all over again. Martians play the role of Indians; disease wipes out the original inhabitants; St. Joseph's, Missouri becomes a launch pad; adventurers go native; boom towns yield to ghost towns; and Earthlings go up instead of west to start anew. The Martian future is the American past.

And the American past that Bradbury most longs for is his own. Uprooted from Waukegan, Illinois as a teenager, the Tinseltown-transplant developed career aspirations higher than the Hollywood sign. Bradbury stayed in California, but his imagination frequently journeyed back to northern Illinois. …

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