The centenary of the birth of Ray Bradbury, poet of the future, less interested in predicting it than in warning us of its consequences is commemorated
Summer 1963. Playboy magazine publishes in its July and August editions the two installments of its panel on trends that would mark the future with the Orwellian title 1984 & beyond . It is the result of a meeting with 12 of the most renowned science fiction writers. Men “whose dreams and nightmares have proven to be prophetic.” Among them Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. The bunny magazine was not new to Bradbury. Hefner had paid him 400 dollars to publish in parts in 1954 a story of firefighters who burn books, Fahrenheit 451 , which he would end up with 1984 and Brave New World., the holy trinity of futuristic dystopias.
The tone of the debate is far removed from that of the novel. Optimism floods her predictions. Interplanetary flights and space stations to inhabit the Moon in the 70s. Venus and Mars in the 80s. Robots that do the heaviest jobs and allow four-working-day weeks and three-month paid vacations in which the Moon would be a cheaper destination than Australia. Chemical substances capable of enhancing our brain capacities and “expanding” our possibilities. And of course, eternal life.
More than 35 years after the set horizon, none of its omens have been fulfilled. Video artist Gerard Byrne presented an installation that reconstructs the encounter at the Tate Gallery in London . The play played on the strange sensation of seeing 12 middle-aged white men make wrong assumptions about a future that for us is already past. The experience wants to reflect on our vision of the future and on our obsession with guessing it, justifying that others have already achieved it. That is why on this centenary of the birth of Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) we will read repeatedly that Fahrenheit 451 anticipated the arrival of flat screens, that the shells used by Montag’s wife look like airpodsthat Apple would present 65 years later or that a Japanese university has just presented a prototype that resembles the mechanical hound in the novel.
As we repeatedly hear that Jules Verne predicted the submarine, Wells, the atomic bomb; Orwell, cyber surveillance; and Gibbson, cyberspace (although anyone who has read the patriarch of cyberpunk knows that his concept has little to do with the current development of networks). Archeology of the future to convince us that it is possible to foresee it. The desire to know the future is as old as man. As Yuval Noah Harari explains, what sets us apart from homo sapiensof the rest of hominids is our ability to believe in things that only exist in our imagination. A potential that allows us to believe in religions, nations or in that abstract concept that we call the future. A future that until the end of the 18th century was little more than an inevitable destiny, like the one that awaited Thebes and Oedipus, but which became the promise of a better world in the heat of the French Revolution and lived its maximum splendor at the dawn of the 20th century, which began with the futuristic utopia and ended up mired in nostalgia as Svetlana Boym explained in The Future of Nostalgia .
But the technological advances in Bradbury’s texts (as in those of Huxley, Orwell, or earlier Zamiatin) are little more than a Hitchcockian McGuffin . As he himself repeatedly stated, he was not trying to predict the future, but to warn us of it. A contemporary Cassandra whose warnings we ignore as the Trojans did with their princess’s warning about that majestic wooden horse. Our fascination with the technique of the future seems proportional to our ability to ignore warnings about its impact, nobody wants to listen to Cassandra.
For this reason, Bradbury is more interested in fiction than science, more in poetry than technology. That is why their stories of the future apply to everyone present. Its “delightful terrors” made Jorge Luis Borges wonder in the prologue to the first Spanish edition of Crónicas Marcianas“What has this man done so that episodes of the conquest of another planet fill me with terror and loneliness? How can these fantasies touch me, and in such an intimate way? ” And it is that Bradbury was a poet of the future, like the one Luis Cernuda wrote to. Their gadgets were not rockets or flat screens but allegory and symbol and it is in that curiosity for the real that remains under the fiction where the porteño and the one from Illinois were found, believers, above all, in power. of the stories.
Bradbury, who hadn’t been to college, had trained with them. Reading for hours in those libraries that he, like Borges, adored. On one of them, with a rented typewriter, he wrote one of the most beautiful allegations about the value of these stories: Fahrenheit 451 . “It was a pleasure to burn”, difficult to escape from the powerful image of burning books. Moreover difficult in 1953, when the book was published, only 20 years after the NSDB, Nazi student federation, did burn the works of Jews, Marxists and pacifists in Opera Square in Berlin and in 21 other university towns at the height of the “Action Against the Anti-German Spirit” which began by burning books and ended by burning people as Heinrich Heine wrote.
These pyres were not new in literature -the barber and the priest had already burned Don Quixote’s books-, nor were the manipulation of the texts -Winston Smith rewrites the history books in 1984- , nor the contempt for fictions, in Paris, Jules Verne’s 20th century , bookstores don’t know who Victor Hugo and Balzac are and they only have “technical books and scientific poetry,” but Bradbury added his humanistic vision with that hopeful end of book-men and the survival of stories. Because what terrified Bradbury were not the firefighters, but that their task was unnecessary: ”Because it is not necessary to burn books if the world begins to fill with people who do not read, who do not learn, who do not know,” he wrote in 1993 in Bright Fireas a preface to a new edition of his best known novel.
A few years earlier, in 1985, Neil Postman wrote Fun to Death in which he argued that it was Huxley and not Orwell who had hit the mark with his dystopian vision. A society in which, as Bradbury feared, it is not necessary to censor books because nobody is interested in reading them, it is not necessary to deprive ourselves of information because there is so much that is irrelevant, it does not take a big brother because we are all watching Big Brother . Postman described the a posteriori effect of those warnings that Huxley or Bradbury made a priori. The numbing effect of the great cultural revolutions of the 20th century, most of which were plugged into the wall: the radio, the television, and finally the computer. Leisure had replaced religion as the opium of the people.
Times have changed since the Postman 80s, but not that much. Displays no longer need to be plugged in and can be carried in your pocket instead of hanging on the wall. The world’s leading power is governed not by an actor but by a television host who, as in Bradbury’s dystopia, hates to read . In El Fuego y la Furia , Michael Wolff’s controversial portrait of Donald Trump, the president’s favorite plan is to get into bed at 6:30 p.m. with a cheeseburger to simultaneously watch all three televisions in his bedroom while tweeting from your mobile phone.
That third screen was the dream of Mildred, the wife of the protagonist of Fahrenheit and the maximum embodiment of that superficiality that the novel criticizes and in which we are more and more participants. Social networks, inherited from those unknown relatives who spoke to Mildred from the flat screen, use the personalization of Orwell’s big brother to build Huxley’s happy world. Today we do not burn books but we dare to summarize them in 280 Twitter characters or a photo with Instagram filters. And beyond that, the prevailing dataism proposes the dogma of data as the only and absolute truth. All turned into the number-men of the Weby Zamiatin. People and stories reduced to an enormous amount of data, ignoring those “uncountable variables” that for Deleuze and Guattari were the last stronghold of the different. Captain Beatty, the perverse fire chief of arsonists in Fahrenheit 451 , was already talking about data , “Stuff them with non-combustible data, throw so many ‘facts’ at them that they feel overwhelmed … Then they will have the feeling that they think. They will have the impression that they are moving without moving. And they will be happy ”.
Years before Fahrenheit 451 , Bradbury had already addressed the issue of censorship and disdain for stories in Usher II. In it, William Stendahl, an expert in literature, retreats to Mars, fleeing Earth where literary, cinematographic and theatrical works that had a fantastic theme were prohibited. There he builds a mansion identical to the one in The Fall of House Usher.by Edgar Allan Poe. When everything is ready, Stendahl invites to his new attraction a select group of those responsible for the prohibition of fiction: “members of the Society for the Repression of Fantasy, enemies of the Feast of the Dead and Guy Fawkes Day , bat hunters, book arsonists, torch bearers; peaceful and clean citizens ”. Halfway through the party, robots led by Stendahl begin to murder the guests imitating the crimes described by Poe. Perhaps today the enemies of these robots defenders of literature would be influencers , dataists , television talk shows, coachand marketing managers bent on creating simple messages that build the false happiness of those who think they know everything. The way to beat them, keep reading books, newspapers, magazines or anything else that allows us to keep asking ourselves questions.