Ray Bradbury is wonderful, isn't he? I already knew that from the books and short stories I've read and the audio versions I have listened to, but once again I am reminded that he was a superlative storyteller and not just of stories purely for entertainment (though he is always entertaining, too). He was ahead of his time, doin't you think?. How did he know which direction we would be moving in when it came to technology--and how it has the potential to take over our lives in not so helpful ways? Thanks to Janet for the heads up on Flavorwire's 50 Scariest Short Stories of All Time, and for pointing me in the direction of Ray Bradbury's short story, "The Veldt" (originally published as "The World the Children Made") which definitely rivals "There Will Come Soft Rains" (though for me the latter just barely edges out the former--by just a smidgen). "The Veldt" appears high on the Flavorwire list.
"The Veldt" first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in September 1950 and was later published in the collection The Illustrated Man. I suppose you might consider it a cautionary tale. It's what happens when we rely too heavily on technology to make our lives easier--when it takes the place of normal human contact and interaction and how it has the potential to dehumanize us, make us less empathetic towards others. And the story is just downright creepy and deadly, too.
Computers wouldn't have been a new concept to Bradbury in 1950, though imagine how strikingly different they were then to what they are now. "The Veldt" reminds me a little of Fahrenheit 451. Remember those scenes in the book where entire walls in a home were like TV screens and Montag's wife would sit and watch "entertainments"? It's not so different than today's reality TV--where people sit quite passively in front a box and watch other people live their lives (however fabricated they are on reality TV).
In this week's story, George and Lydia Hadley and their two children live in a Happylife Home. Soundproofed, sensitized to their every whim and desire and a steal at $30,000! They needn't lift a finger--just step into a tube and be lifted away to their bedrooms, think of food they want to eat and it appears on the table, and it rocks the family to sleep at night. It even takes care of the children.
"The nursery was silent. It was empty as a jungle glade at hot high noon. The walls were blank and two dimensional. Now, as George and Lydia Hadley stood in the center of the room, the walls began to purr and recede into crystalline distance, it seemed, and presently a African veldt appeared, in three dimensions, on all sides, in color reproduced to the final pebble and bit of straw. The ceiling became a deep sky with a hot yellow sun."
All so real. Hot sun above shining down and making the couple break out into a sweat, so real. Even the dry smell of grass and a whiff of wild animal. And oh, the cries. The roars. Somewhere off in the distance the lions are roaring, they are attacking their prey and having their meal. You can almost reach out and touch them. The thing is, the nursery ("forty feet long and thirty feet high"--it cost half as much as the rest of the house, but then nothing is too good for their two little darling children) almost takes the place of the children's parents. Whatever the children can imagine, whatever they desire is reflected on screen. What a wonderful educational tool. You almost think you are really there--at least Lydia and George feel as though they have been dropped into the middle of the veldt when they go into the children's nursery.
"Walls, Lydia, remember, crystal walls, that's all they are. Oh, they look real, I must admit -- Africa in your parlor -- but it's all dimensional, superreactionary, supersensitive color film and mental tape film behind glass screens. It's all odorophonics and sonics, Lydia,"
as George reminds his wife. Silly of her to have gone off screaming at the approach of those lifelike animals that seem to be just feet in front of them. But something is not quite right. Something is missing in their lives.
"That's just it (Lydia tells George). I feel like I don't belong here. The house is wide and mother now, and nursemaid. Can I compete with an African veldt? Can I five a vath and scrub the children as efficiently or quickly as the automatic scrub bath can? I cannot. And it isn't just me. It's you. You've been awfully nervous lately."
When the pair decide that for the sanity of their children they must lock the nursery and give them a breather, concentrate more on real life, it is a decision that is not warmly received by their children. As a matter of fact, when they discuss the problem with a psychologist they realize they have relied too much on their Happylife Home and the nursery . . . well, I'll let you discover for yourself what happens next. You can read the story here. Gentle nudge, nudge. Just one short story this RIP season, you won't regret it. Next to the Shirley Jackson, I think this is one of my favorite short stories this year!
With RIP IX coming to an end this week, I'll be reading something entirely different in November for my short story Sundays. Maybe some German translations? Or maybe back to my Jane Gardam collection. Something entirely different? Well, we'll see.
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As for this week's New Yorker (October 13 issue) story, I read Haruki Murakami's "Scheherazade" and am happy to say we're back on track for a story that is tantalizingly good after a series of stories I didn't get on as well with as I would have liked. It's a story within a story of sorts. I have never read Murakami before, so I have no idea how this story compares to his other work. I always imagined his stories to be unusual. Not necessarily experimental but not exactly straightforward either. Maybe imaginative and creative and pushing the limit in some way.
There was a subtle quality to "Sheherazade" that I really liked, a deftness of touch. A middle aged woman, a nurse, comes to the house of Habara twice a week to check on him. Leave his groceries, make a list of what she needs to bring the next time, switch out his library books and DVDs. He cannot leave his home, though we are never told why. After all the regular tasks are accomplished the two repair to the bedroom for some rather perfunctory sex, which is followed by a story which she tells. He keeps a diary, though not explicit in any way. It has just some small notation to remind him of the day and the story. She tells him of a story from her youth and a mad crush she had on a boy in her class and the time she "broke into" his house just to be near him and would take some small token and leave something in return.
It's a brilliantly done story. The reader, at least I was, is equally as caught up in her stories as Habara was. And the subtlety, not all questions are answered, the story never fully told. Habara waits in anticipation for more, and so do we. It seems like it would be unfinished, but I liked that there were unanswered questions, things left to the imagination. It felt just right--what I think a short story should be. I wonder if all his writing is as good as this was?
You can read Murakami's Q&A here. A most excellent reading weekend thus far (good short stories and good novel reading, too), and something new on the horizon for the next.