“I am not a prophet, nor am I a prophet’s son …”
None of us is. Doesn’t stop us from trying. For those who write science-fiction, it’s practically a professional obligation.
“Terrifyingly prophetic”—aren’t those words you’d love to have on your jacket blurb? I’ve heard them applied to George Orwell’s 1984, which isn’t exactly S-F but shares with it the impulse to limn the shapes of things to come. As applied to 1984, they’re only partly true. “Terrifying” the book is—I don’t dare dip into its pages, lest I find myself swept along by the power and persuasion of Orwell’s writing and carried to its horrific climax. But “prophetic”? No way.
1984 came and went a long time ago. It didn’t bear the slightest resemblance to Orwell’s nightmare. The issue is not just chronology. Orwell, it’s now become clear, had the trends all wrong. Extrapolating from the 1930s and 40s, he imagined the future as belonging to a tiny clique of malignant monster-states, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia to the nth power, merciless and perduring as the slave empires of antiquity to which Orwell compared them. He couldn’t conceive—any more than he could have foreseen the Internet—that the problem at century’s end would be the opposite. Societies fragmenting into nasty little ethnic nationalisms, often with a medieval religious edge, ghastly technologies of slaughter at their disposal.
(Orwell himself, actually, would have denied any claims of prophethood made for him. The best way to feel yourself omniscient, he once wrote, is to not keep a diary. That way you forget all the predictions you made that went wrong.)
Of all the writers I read in my youth, the one to whom I’d most readily grant the title of prophet is not Orwell, nor Aldous Huxley with his Brave New World, but science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury, who passed away last June 5 at age 91. His story “The Murderer,” published in his 1953 collection The Golden Apples of the Sun, is a stunningly accurate portrayal of the way we live sixty years later, in a world dominated by “machines that yak-yak-yak.”
It’s not a dystopia. Not exactly. The US, where the story seems to be set—though I don’t think this is stated explicitly—is still a democracy. People are pretty comfortable, pretty contented. Except for one.
“When it wasn’t the telephone it was the television, the radio, the phonograph … it was inter-office communications, and my horror chamber of a radio wrist watch on which my friends and my wife phoned every five minutes. … I love my friends, my wife, humanity, very much, but when one minute my wife calls to say, ‘Where are you now, dear?’ and a friend calls and says, ‘Got the best off-color joke to tell you. Seems there was a guy—’ And a stranger calls and cries out, ‘This is the Find-Fax Poll. What gum are you chewing at this very instant!’ Well!”
The voice you hear is Albert Brock, the “murderer” of the title. So named because he rises in rebellion against the tyranny of the gabby machines by murdering his house.
“It’s one of those talking, singing, humming, weather-reporting, poetry-reading, novel-reciting, jingle-jangling, rockaby-crooning-when-you-go-to-bed houses. A house that screams opera to you in the shower and teaches you Spanish in your sleep. One of those blathering caves where all kinds of electronic Oracles make you feel a trifle larger than a thimble … A house that barely tolerates humans, I tell you.”
Brock lays his plans. Then he strikes.
“Next morning early I bought a pistol. I purposely muddied my feet. I stood at our front door. The front door shrilled, ‘Dirty feet, muddy feet! Wipe your feet! Please be neat! I shot the damn thing in its keyhole.”
The systematic annihilation continues. (And as I write these words I have an uneasy sense of other act-alone “murderers” of our time, perhaps animated by rage like Brock’s, who do not confine their mayhem to houses.)
“Then I went in and shot the televisor, that insidious beast, that Medusa, which freezes a billion people to stone every night, staring fixedly, that Siren which called and sang and promised so much and gave, after all, so little, but myself always going back, going back, hoping and waiting until—bang!”
The police take him away. At the end of the story Brock’s in a mental hospital, facing a long—lifelong, perhaps—confinement. He’s not unhappy. Like Sam McGee, warm at last in the fires of his cremation, he’s found his yearned-for quiet. He dreams of the revolution his act has sparked. He tells the psychiatrist who’s interviewing him what’s gone wrong with their society:
“It was all so enchanting at first. The very idea of these things, the practical uses, was wonderful. They were almost toys, to be played with, but the people got too involved, went too far, and got wrapped up in a pattern of social behavior and couldn’t get out, couldn’t admit they were in, even. So they rationalized their nerves as something else. ‘Our modern age,’ they said. ‘Conditions,’ they said. ‘High-strung,’ they said.”
The psychiatrist offers a different diagnosis:
“Seems completely disorientated, but convivial. Refuses to accept the simplest realities of his environment and work with them.”
“The simplest realities”! And Bradbury wrote this story at the beginning of the 1950s, when cell phones could be imagined only as Dick-Tracy-style wrist radios and television as we know it barely existed.
A prophet? A prophet’s son? Whatever—he was great, and now he’s gone.