Ray Bradbury: When the Writer Mistakes His Books for Himself

By Mike Darwin

On 5 June 2012, the master storyteller and science fiction writer Ray Bradbury died at the age of 91. Some Bradbury’s work, and very nearly Bradbury himself became an iconic part of the culture. His novel Fahrenheit 451, the collection of short stories that became The Martian Chronicles, and especially his superb short stories such as Dandelion Wine, I Sing the Body Electric and There Will Come Soft Rains took him to apogee of SF and fantasy writers in the 1950s and ’60s. There have been many reminiscences of Bradbury on various life extension forums, some by advocates of cryonics and/or radical life extension, such Steve Harris, M.D. and Gregory Fahy, Ph.D. Oddly, these condolences make no mention of Bradbury’s decades long public and not infrequent opposition to human life span extension.

There Will Come Soft Rains, along with I Sing the Body Electric were my introduction to Bradbury, followed a little later by Fahrenheit 451, which I read whilst recovering from a tonsillectomy at age 15 (a very painful procedure when done past childhood). I met Bradbury some years ago, quite unexpectedly, at a social gathering in Los Angeles. The person who introduced us made the grave error of disclosing my background in cryonics and Bradbury was anxious to terminate the encounter as soon as it had begun. Probably even more so than Isaac Asimov, he loathed the idea of cryonics and life span extension. I gained a bit of ground by immediately raising this point, before he could, and our conversation continued long enough for me to get some insight into why Bradbury had such strong negative feelings about extending the human life span. And it was just the human life span he was concerned with – robots, such as the nanny in I Sing the Body Electric could go on forever, and it made no difference to him.

I finally concluded that, like Mother Theresa, Bradbury’s morality was evil incarnate. He opposed vast extension of the human life span not because it would result in stagnation, or social injustice, but rather because it would lead to the diminution or termination of those elements of human suffering and weakness he considered essential to being human. Without death, and forgetting and constantly being “reset” to that fraction of our libraries each human generation might be able to absorb before, in turn, being extinguished, there could be no pathos of the kind that was Bradbury’s stock and trade. Bradbury saw, quite clearly, that practical biological immortality would transform man into something fundamentally different, alien even, from his current state of being and he was deeply repulsed by that. To be human is to be mortal and to suffer and to die and to live out a history of error and folly over and over, indefinitely. A history that would recede into the dim mists of living memory. A history that required the storyteller to shape the critical parables for mankind to live (and die) by. A history that required men like Ray Bradbury. His final remark in our conversation was that he would have immortality through his books which was the only kind of immortality to which men were entitled.

At the end of Fahrenheit, Granger tells Montag the story of the phoenix, the mythical bird that goes through endless cycles of fiery death and resurrections as an allegory to the human condition, noting that men, unlike birds, ought to be able to remember their mistakes and not repeat them (which, alas, they never do). Granger then proposes that the “books” set about building a “gigantic mirror factory” so that mankind can gaze at himself and come to realize the folly of his forgetting, his hubris and his foolishness.

The end result of such literal self reflection would, no doubt, have been either vanity or disgust – not insight into the follies of history. To gain the latter, it is necessary for us to transcend our mortality. We have mastered fire; and in so doing have fouled our planet’s air and water. Because we live only briefly, we have little ability to see the long term consequences of our actions, and we (like all others before us), cannot truly suffer the effects of our ignorance and recklessness through our children. If we are to behave responsibly with respect to the long term effects of our deeds, we must live long enough to experience them firsthand.

Approximately every fifty years, the accumulated wisdom and experience of an entire generation is wiped out. Yes, some tiny fraction of the knowledge can be (and is) captured in books and other ‘media.’ But knowledge is not wisdom; wisdom is a property of the conscious mind imbued with memory and experience. Wiping out all the hard won accumulated wisdom (and in reality most of the real knowledge, in the bargain) of each human generation is incredibly wasteful – and destructive. This was unavoidable in the past, and it was tolerable because we were barely better than beasts, and we played only with mortals’ things. But it is no longer acceptable. Quite apart from the terrible injustice that death represents for the individual, it is no longer a tenable option for us as species. It has become an expense we can no longer pay, a debt we can no longer afford to service.

 The great economic collapses of 1929 and 2008.

Consider this timely analogy. One of the great problems in economies is the loss of institutional memory for infrequent, but disastrous events. Just about the time the last individuals are dying out from the previous round of economic madness and irresponsibility, another round occurs. This timing is not coincidental; you have to live through some kinds of errors and experience them for yourself, before you can avoid them in the future. That’s exactly what a big part of becoming an adult and growing up are all about; everybody knows you can’t tell a child, or a teenager, about ‘responsibility,’ or about being taken advantage of, or about how to manage money wisely. That kind of knowledge comes only through experience. At present, we are manipulating technologies so vast and so powerful that we will get only one chance to get it right (and that only if we are lucky). There will be no forgiveness for playing the technological equivalent of 1929, over and over again, as we have just done now.

Bradbury didn’t understand that, or refused to understand it. While I loved the melancholy of his stories, I came to realize upon meeting him that it was not dissatisfaction with that melancholia that drove their production, nor the hope that mankind would once and forever learn from the mistakes of the Cold War and book burners, but rather, that mankind would go on, mortal, until his end as a species, with only some fraction of his books surviving until that final day.

I was disappointed to meet Bradbury the man, because he was nothing like Bradbury the author, whom I had read and loved. And therein lay another powerful lesson; authors are not their books and books are most certainly not their authors. Ray Bradbury is dead and for the talent lost and the man lost we can justly grieve. However, I believe that in the midst of his warmth and generosity, there was a terrible streak of cruel repression – one which he might well have written about eloquently and movingly, had he only been able to see it and to recognize it for it was.

Much of Ray Bradbury’s fiction is not only brilliant, it is profoundly humane. He had the rare ability as an author to deeply engage our emotions in the service of making us see both the good and the evil in mankind. Fahrenheit was, is, and will likely long remain a deserved touchstone on the evils of censorship and the opportunity for, if not the inevitability of intellectual and moral decline as a result of advances in telecommunications. Nothing in what I write here is meant to in any way diminish that considerable accomplishment.

My points are three. First, to express surprise that no one in the cryonics and life extension communities has noted that Bradbury had been a staunch and public opponent to life span extension and, in particular, to the technologies of cryonics and suspended animation. The second reason is to point out that there can be, and often is, a dichotomy between the fiction writer as a person and the perception of the writer (public and private) created by his works. Third, and last, I want to say that Bradbury was an influential person. Indeed, I consider him one of the most influential writers in my own life. By definition, influential people influence others and I have no doubt that Bradbury’s voiceiferously negative stance on cryonics and life span extension had a (from our standpoint) negative influence on others. In fact, I would argue that the most powerful objections to practical immortality are not the technical ones, but the philosophical, social and moral ones.

Today there are myriad eminently practical technologies that are only minimally exploited, not exploited at all, or completely forbidden. As Peter Thiel has recently observed, most kinds of engineering and practical scientific research have become illegal to do, absent extensive and oppressive governmental control. People may understandably have some sympathy with this, wherein things like nuclear engineering are concerned, but the fact is that social-ethical concerns have slowed and essentially stopped almost all independent biomedical research.

As a practical example, when I was a teenager (and well into my 20s) it was possible for me to undertake animal research in an upstairs storage room converted to a “bio-hacker’s” laboratory and surgery. Nor was I alone; many Science Fair projects of the 1960s and ’70′s involved extensive research on live animals – including drug and transplantation studies, which were mostly conducted on rodents, but also sometimes on dogs. Today, even as an adult, were I to try the same thing I would be carted off to prison (prison, not jail). A bit earlier today, I read a question posted by some hapless investigator on the Gerontology Research Group forum as to whether experiments on Drosophila (fruit flies!) were regulated, and as to whether the creatures must be treated “humanely.” Incredible!

The issue of how laboratory animals are handled is indeed an important one, and not just to the animals, but to us, as well. It is a complex issue and it admits of no easy solutions and it especially admits of no syrupy, knee-jerk sentimentality that invokes outright bans or crushing regulation. It was and is exactly the latter – coupled with the philosophically erroneous position of “animal rights,” that has slowed the pace of biomedical advance to an abysmal crawl when compared with the explosive and stunning progress that has been made over the same interval of time in software, computing power, and consumer electronics. If advances had been half as fast in biomedicine, we’d likely all be “immortal” now.

I have taken the time to get to know a fair cross section of the people who advocate radical (terrorist) action against biomedical researchers in the name of animal rights. Some are idiots and fools. But others are sincere, caring and compassionate people who are certain they are acting from the best intentions and in the best interest of our species. Many of these people are kindly and otherwise decent; and they are certainly people who, in many cases, have achieved good and decent things in their lives. In short, they are not “pure evil.”

Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge, knew him as a decent, caring man who was a good employer – someone she found both worthwhile and exciting to work for and with. And, truth to tell, leaving aside his philosophical peccadilloes and a great deal of unfortunate timing, Hitler might well have been a perfectly pedestrian Austrian or German shop keep selling artist’s supplies, or perhaps operating an art gallery, or a photography studio. Neither his anti-Semitism or his twisted political views would have been much out of character for the times. Indeed, some Neo-Nazis and Communists I’ve known have been otherwise very pleasant people. And, truth to tell, I have occasion to deal with such “crazy” people from time to time, as do we all, and as long we steer clear of politics and race, the commercial transactions and the accompanying social banter are rewarding. True, where I can, I try to do business elsewhere. But that isn’t always possible.

Recently, Steve Harris, M.D., wrote in response to my comments about Bradbury:

 “Sure, Bradbury doesn’t mind eternal life for machines, or Martians, or Dead Authors. And I suspect he wouldn’t have minded it for humans, if he could have seen his way to it as he did for the Martians. But he didn’t, that’s all, and he wasn’t an incrementalist and he wasn’t into “Scientism” (as we all are). He saw “the flesh” as permanent for humanity, and death as permanent as flesh, and books and the vicarious experience of horror for the good of the soul, were Bradbury’s best answer to a “human condition” problem that he took as a given, not solvable by technology (certainly not solvable by technology as HE knew it). If some of the writers on this list don’t share Bradbury’s premises from his benighted time, that’s fine. But give the guy a break, okay?”

I wish I could do that. But, the fact of the matter is that “Scientism” or education, or knowledge in or about science, have little to do with whether a person embraces radical life span extension, or not. Twenty four years ago I wrote an article titled The Door to Nowhere about the near simultaneous “deaths” of two very different “Roberts”: Robert Heinlein and a man I’ll call Robert B. Robert B. was a TV repairman who lived a very ordinary life in a manufactured home park in South Florida. He was not highly educated and I doubt that he knew much more about the sciences than Ray Bradbury, and most likely he knew much less. Unarguably, he knew much, much less than Robert Heinlein. The critical difference between the two was that Robert B. had an outlook, a world view, a philosophy and a set of expectations that demanded the pursuit of his personal survival, even at considerable costs in the face of (arguably) overwhelmingly adverse odds. So, whilst Robert Heinlein was being removed to the crematorium (literally), Robert B. was making his way down towards liquid nitrogen temperature (where he remain to this day).

Above left, the science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein and, at right, the cryonaut Robert B.

My point then (and now) is that it was Robert B., not Robert Heinlein who was the authentic adventurer, pioneer and optimist. Henlein wrote eloquently of such characters, but when the rubber hit the road, he chose not to live like them (and yers, he was well aware of cryonics, as is his still surviving SF-writer cohort, Fred Pohl). Many apologies for this decision are, of course possible, and indeed even likely reasonable. Maybe Heinlein just didn’t think cryonics would work. Fair enough, if that was the case. But importantly, unlike Isaac Asimov (who did, in fact, think cryonics might well work), Heinlein did not espouse a philosophy, nor take a position that cryonics, let alone life span extension, were evil, or should be prohibited. Indeed, his fiction treats both technological possibilities in a positive way.

My problem with Bradbury is a fairly abstract one, especially now that he is dead. He seemed a nice enough man the one time I met him, and I had no doubt, then or now, that his convictions regarding the undesirability of life prolongation (which ran to the point of banning it) were both heartfelt and sincere. And, as I’ve previously said, I love much of his fiction and hold it in high esteem. Much of his published work is good work and it deserves to be read until such time as it no longer speaks to any who are alive. I tolerate (and ignore) the crazy and kooky political and social views of many of the people I have to interact with in commerce, and in the business of daily life, because I really have no choice, and much more importantly, because they are not influential. The militiaman, or neolithic fundamentalist-racist, or even the devout Catholic who is a member of Opus Dei who may be my neighbors are of little concern to me if or until they become powerful and influential. There were hundreds of thousands of down and out and embittered anti-Semitic veterans of World War I in Germany in the 1920s, and Hitler was a nobody of no concern until he became a somebody of great influence.

The problem with Ray Bradbury wasn’t his lack of the proper scientific perspective, but rather his active and zealous belief in a philosophical and moral perspective which are anathema to those of us pursuing practical, biological immortality. That doesn’t make Bradbury a “bad or evil person.” But it also doesn’t make him a saint. And what’s more, it behooves us not to let such ideas and such behavior go unremarked upon, especially when they are espoused by influential people of such import as to practically have become a cultural icon. As I said with respect to Robert Heinlein over two decades ago:

“Extraordinary writing skills, technical vision – these will likely be things available to anyone almost for the asking in the future. They are worthwhile things, but they are not core values, not the fundamental things required to enjoy and hold on to life. The other Bob, the one waiting quietly in liquid nitrogen at Alcor, may not have been an intellectual luminary or a great entertainer of the masses as Heinlein was. But he had and still has something Heinlein hasn’t a chance in the world of now: the prospect of immortality in an open ended world of incredible possibilities. For he had the courage and the brains not to merely hear about “The Door Into Summer,” but to actually step through it. “

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5 Responses to Ray Bradbury: When the Writer Mistakes His Books for Himself

  1. Kurt says:

    Jim Hogan was another SF writer who was mildly hostile to radical life extension and cryonics. He died 2 years ago in July of ’10. Like Heinlein, Hogan wrote stories that had openness and pioneering as a theme (Voyage from Yesteryear being the most notable). I rather liked his stories and I definitely liked him personally (I drank with him a few times at “cons” in the late 80′s).

    However, I noticed he “turned inward” starting in the mid 90′s, with the openness and pioneering becoming much less prominent in his stories from that point on. I was rather disappointed. I suspect much of this was due to personal medical issues that he may have experienced starting that time.

    One of the things that is notable of ALL of his stories, even the earlier ones, is the complete absence of any kind of bio-engineering (biotechnology). I suspect he simply was not personally comfortable with this kind of technology, preferring the “big machines” and physics-based technology that everyone dreamed of in the mid 20th century. In personal conversation, he was dismissive of nanotechnology as well.

    • Mark Plus says:

      Science fiction writers grow up in the same cultures everyone else does, and they use what they know. John Ringo and his sometime collaborator Travis S. Taylor, for example, write science fiction with Southern redneck characters modeled after themselves. SF writers love to fantasize about weird futuristic situations, and in some cases like Robert Heinlein’s they might have bohemian personal lives, but in general they operate according to conventional world views and would refuse to do for real many of the things they show in their stories.

      So I wouldn’t expect too much from these people other than entertainment. Though several years ago I formulated the Two Dozen Science Fiction Novel Rule: After reading a couple dozen SF novels from different authors, you’ve pretty much read them all. Any additional SF novels you read will just remind you of previous ones, and you’ll get diminishing returns from the exercise.

  2. billswift says:

    >Some are idiots and fools. But others are sincere, caring and compassionate people who are certain they are acting from the best intentions and in the best interest of our species.

    Anyone who gets a name for “sincerity” is likely an idiot. Intelligent people are all to aware of the complexity of the world and our beliefs, which usually comes across to the vast majority of people as insincere.

  3. Mark Plus says:

    >As Peter Thiel has recently observed, most kinds of engineering and practical scientific research have become illegal to do, absent extensive and oppressive governmental control.

    Speaking of Peter Thiel, has any disbursements from his fortune spent on allowable technologies produced results yet? I’ve gathered that the money he invested into the Andregg brothers’ Halcyon Molecular startup company has gone to waste.

  4. josh says:

    Hey Mike, I’m a writer out in New York and I’m working on a story about cryonics. I was out in AZ at Alcor the week before last. I’ve tried to find an email for you online but have so far struck out, so I’m trying this (inspired by the Dutch reporter!). Can you drop me a line and I can explain further?

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