It's up, on, and, away
Clifton Fadiman describes you as "a moralist who works most easily in the medium known as fantasy" and a friend of mine once said that you write science fiction which isn't really science fiction.
I'm a magician -- when I began to write at twelve, it was only natural that I should put in my stories what I'd seen on the stage and sensed in machinery and read in the scientific magazines. Twenty thousand years ago, sun would fall through a hole in a rock and make a light in a cave appear on the wall, sometimes upside down. This was a natural lens of some sort, and people observed that phenomenon and thought it was magic. But what was once magic becomes science and my stories are really descriptions of that changing state, sometimes moving back and forth between past and present.
You seem to have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward technology. I think you'd like to warm us about the technological disasters we may be headed towards. On the other hand, you wrote the story "I Sing The Body Electric," about a family that had a robot which brought a sense of love and appreciation to the little girl who missed her grandmother. What are your feelings?
They're mixed, and a fair writer is one who can approach every problem from two directions. An automobile is a destroying mechanism and it's also a happiness machine, depending on how it's used. You should examine both sides, and then write perhaps a third story, which will give us solutions combining both, so that we can get away from the nightmare and move toward the delights in the future, build better cars, better highways, offer more alternatives. . .
People ask me, "Aren't you afraid of computers, Ray?" I'm not -- I'm fascinated. I refuse to be fearful of the object. I examine the object, I revise the object, and in the case of the electrical grandmother in ". . . the Body Electric," she's a metaphor for all the good machines that we have in our world, the good reliquaries of time that we are surrounded with everywhere. Disney showed us that delightful humanoid robots can be built to entertain us and to educate us, and I would like to use those robot devices in all kinds of ways in our educational system. They're great teachers. You go into a room with one of them -- there's no one there to make you feel self- conscious and stupid -- just the machine, and it can teach you over and over and over again until you get it, and it won't call you names, it won't even know you're there. They help dummies like myself and all the other people who must be taught by books alone. But books are little bucks on a piece of paper, aren't they? -- robot devices in very simple form come out of a printing machine. but you were convinced. What made you so sure then?
There's a scene in "Moby Dick" where Starbucks says to Ahab, "Sir, what will this chase pay the men of old New Bedford?" and Ahab says, "It does not pay on the barrelhead, it pays here, man, here," and he strikes his chest. We need a rebirth of idealism. We have to romance ourselves into being tall again, and being proud, and caring about what we do. That's what it's all about. And every child knows this. Why do you think that the lines run around the block at "Star Trek"? That movie has made $50 million in just four weeks! It's the most successful film in the history of the world! "Close Encounters" -- $200 million in a few months -- is a religious film, because it relates man to the universe. It's got a strong, mighty, huge, overwhelming religious theme. What we're doing with our religions is binding up the mysteries and putting them under a Godhead and trying to make some sense of the miracle, isn't it? And the kids know this. They are ahead of the theologians and educators. We've got to listen. Now that doesn't mean the kids are right about everything. No, no, but they're hungry for that miracle. They're going to science fiction films because they need answers, and if religion won't give it to them, they'll find their religion in that movie, and it's there.
Let's talk about dimensions. In "Tomorrow's Child" you wrote that dimensions had to do with senses and time and knowledge. Sometimes I wonder "What is reality to Ray Bradbury?"
I think it's a crazy combination. Mammalian creatures are very fragile and vulnerable, and it takes us years to get back to the state where animals are, automatically. A bird learns to fly very quickly, and many insects don't have to be taught at all how to fly. They're alone and no one teaches them and they just take off. A butterfly comes out of the chrysalis, an hour later it's dried its wings, and it's gone. The world is full of fabulous things like that. But for us humans, from the time we're nine until we're 21 or 22, we dry our wings and look around, begin to fly a little, fall off, and climb back up. Finally, we're 22 and have written 5 million words, as I did when I was in my teens, and we know the time of waiting is over at last. I was ready to fly, the real self was coming out. The training prepares the real self to be born. We should teach that to kids, say, "Hey, it's going to be a long time before you can be this, that, or the other" -- a good basketball player takes about ten years of training.
It's internalized then . . .
Yes, and we need to do all the intuitive things. Take me. I'm a creature who's had sense enough to train himself, and the more free I become, the more I'm able to release these insights that you're talking about.
Let me ask you this question. In one of your stories you have a young man manning a space station, and you have him make a phone call to the him-of-the-future. If you could call the you-of-the-future, what would you say?
A line from a poem of mine, "I remember you, I remember you."
I think of you as a little prophetic. What do you mean when you say "I feel I was put here for a reason"?
Just to reveal truths that are obvious. When people read my stories, they say, "Gee, I've often thought that, but I didn't put it down, or I didn't see it quite that way." There's nothing so remarkable about this ability except that it's a surprise, and I try to surprise myself every day, and see what else is lying around that nobody has noticed and ask, why haven't they? I'll give you a good example. I wrote an article called "The Ardent Blasphemers," comparing Melville and Jules Verne. They're obviously related to each other. One is the dark half of the dark side of the other. The mad captains are identical, one is totally insane, and strikes God, the other plugs into the scientific method and solves the problems of the universe by using the energy of God creatively. One kills the whale, one builds the whale into a nautilus. Well, I sat down and wrote an essay on this, and I sent it off to Clifton Fadiman. Fadiman wrote back and said, "Congratulations, you're the first person in the world to notice how they influenced each other." You have to be open to surprise, and never doubt yourself and if you're wrong, okay, you're wrong, but take a chance and get a thing done . . .
What if one day we transcend our dependence on machines and are able to communicate and act without them?
We've all thought of this since we were children, haven't we? My fire balloons in "The Martian Chronicles" are pure spirit. They can talk to each other by telepathy and assume any shape that they wish and, since they have no bodies, they are free of sin, you see? Because as soon as you create a body, you have hungers and needs.
One of the things I find very thought-provoking in your writing is that you'll take an idea, make it happen, and you'll show what the consequences are. It made me wonder if you have one underlying motive for all your writing, or if you have different ideas that you want to get across at different times?
I think I have different ideas at different times, some aggressive, some constructive. You act them out in your stories or your paintings.
Speaking of books, in "Fahrenheit 451," which you wrote 18 years ago, you described a society where books were burned and living room walls were television screens. Do you still feel the same kinds of things you felt when you wrote that book? How do you feel individuals can deal with the media in their own lives?
I wrote the book 30 years ago. In the last year, I have written a new version of it, as a play. I took the same plot, the same motives, but I said to the characters, "What have you learned since last I met you?" The firechief, for one, learned why he burned the books. He had thought at one time that books were salvation. He learned that no one thing can be our salvation. Along the way, we lubricate life with knowledge borrowed from others, because if you become too much one thing you tend to become brittle. I tried to broaden myself so that wherever a blow fell I'd have an escape.And that applied to my creativity. I've been an essayist, a poet, a novelist, a short story writer, a playwright. If something doesn't work here, I keep moving.
In your novel "Something Wicked This Way Comes," you have a time carousel that running forward takes people into the future, and running backwards takes them into the past. In "Dandelion Wine," which is a very poetical book, Mrs. Bentley says "You're always in the present," and "Time hypnotizes." How do you feel our concepts of time hinder or help us?
We are the only animal that truly remembers. If we couldn't remember from moment to moment what happened yesterday and the day before, we couldn't invent, we couldn't create the future, so we are the inventors of time, we are the inventors of machines that enable us to live better and to survive natural accidents.
In one of your stories, "Chrysalis," you have a man undergoing a change similar to the one a caterpillar undergoes when becoming a butterfly, and I wondered what are your current thoughts on the next stage for individuals?
That's a huge one, because as we move out into space, I think man will remain a religious creature. Right there is the dichotomy we've been arguing about for a couple of centuries now, the so-called dichotomy between science and religion, which is ridiculous. You can carry the science of physics only to a certain point. With electro-microscopes you can only go so deep into the molecules and atoms, the sub-molecules, and you wind up with mystery because you can't go to the end of where the last particle is. You're back with God again, aren't you? When you go out into the universe with your telescopes, you can only see so far -- you end in mystery again. That's where religion takes over, science has only certain perimeters, can explain only certain things, and from that point on it's all theory and you wind up with faith again. So there is no dichotomy, it's all one. So far, certain physical facts seem to be true throughout the universe, but the Prime Mover is still moving, eh? and you have to have something to explain that. That's where the religions of the future will dedicate themselves. They should try not to be too dogmatic, they should try not to lock themselves into brittle theologies. The theology's got to be resilient, and the movement into space is going to force all the believers in the world -- Moslem, Buddhist, Christian -- to loosen up.
Let me ask you some questions about space. One time you said that you were the only student at Los Angeles High who said, "We're on the edge of space, we're entering a space age" and no one else thought so at the time, You've written stories about modern society like "The Pedestrian," that were disturbing to me, but in your June article in US News and World Report, you seemed really excited and enthusiastic about the future . . .
I'm a terribly practical optimist. I discovered years ago that by doing things, things got done. And your optimism grows out of doing things. The people who are pessimistic are people who criticize and don't offer solutions. I'm offering solutions, and in some cases I've changed the world. I've written a number of articles in the last ten years about the cities of the future, the towns of the future, how to reinvent them, how to fill them with the things that we need to make us human beings, and I've seen my influence on several small town developments. I would love, if I came to the end of my life, to say that I have contributed to rebuilding of the American small town.
Your feelings about the future -- what do you feel are the greatest challenges humanity faces in the next decade?
The great challenge is the usual stupid one -- war. The second is energy, and the third challenge is the reconstruction of the small town. The fourth challenge is education, because we're not educating our kids. They don't know how to read and write, and that means they're not going to know how to think. The only way that you can learn to think is by knowing how to write. So everyone's got to be taught how to write essays. I don't care if they're bad or good, just get your thoughts down, keep notes, keep a diary, so that you can see your ideas. You can see what you think that way, and keep a record of your own stupidity year by year . . .
Or your growth in thinking.
Of course, because ultimately it's no longer stupid.
But it was all part of the process.
Teaching's got to start sooner, because the kids are ready when they're three years old, and a lot of other countries are way ahead of us there. By the time kids get out of the third grade, they should have everything they need as far as reading and writing is concerned. They should really be ready for more serious things. But that's not happening.
I think they have a right to a balanced experience in school.
If we're not careful, we're going to raise a generation that can't think. Then we're going to wonder why we wind up with a lot of bad government.
After I read your article in US News and World Report, I thought, "Americans feel like that, they feel as though answers to problems are just around the corner."
Sure. But what we need are creative governments and creative corporations that get in and think about all this too. We've got to create transit systems that really operate for all of us. . . But it's going to take a huge act of imagination by someone to lead the way, and the trouble with most politicians is that's all they are.
What about you?
Going into politics? I can do more, I've already done more, by being outside.
When you write your autobiography, write it like you did "Dandelion Wine."
That's the way I'm doing it. Actually I've got a first draft, and it's called "The Dogs That Eat Sweet Grass," or "How To Keep and Feed A Muse," and I'm doing it in terms of stories and ideas. What interests me in people is their ideas, and how the experiences they had made ideas. If they can hold onto that, it's up, on, and away.