Ed Driscoll

To Prevent the Future: Bradbury & the Threat to Free Speech

As with George Orwell and 1984, Ray Bradbury told interviewers that when he wrote Fahrenheit 451, “I wasn’t trying to predict the future, “I was trying to prevent it.” In the New York Post, Michael Walsh writes that despite his efforts, in many respects, the future that Bradbury was trying to prevent is happening now:

Speech codes. Anti-“blasphemy” and anti-“bullying” laws. Human Rights Commissions, such as the one in Canada that went after writer Mark Steyn for the “crime” of hurting Islamic feelings.

The right to free speech, no matter how offensive, was once a bedrock principle of Western society, defended by both left and right — on the theory that ideas must be tested in the public arena in order for the truth to emerge. Now it’s a source of ideological contention.

Even the First Amendment, which absolutely guarantees the right of free speech, is under attack by those wishing to curtail speech in the name of a bogus public amity.

Written as a liberal plea against ignorance and conformity, “Fahrenheit 451” has in just over half a century become a conservative free-speech rallying cry.

That change partly mirrors its author’s own journey from the Democrat who blasted the Eisenhower Republicans with a full-page ad in Variety (“Every attempt that you make to identify the Democratic Party as the party of Communism, as the ‘left-wing’ or ‘subversive’ party, I will attack with all my heart and soul”) to the late-life Tea Party supporter who said, “There is too much government today.”

Unlike other science-fiction writers, Bradbury’s chief interest lay not in technology but in the human soul. He rarely flew, never used a computer, and never — even living in Los Angeles for most of his life — learned to drive. The world inside his head was reality enough.

Which led to an amusing encounter at an L.A. bookstore signing event in 1985 between Bradbury and our own Maximum Pajamahadeen, Roger. L. Simon:

I sold more books that day, several hundred in my memory, than I ever have at any signing before or since (or am ever likely to).

At the end, the woman who owned the store looked pretty satisfied. It was her idea to team up. Ray turned to me and suggested we sign books for each other to commemorate the event. I signed California Roll to him and my copy of Death Is a Lonely Business stands open at the computer as I type this. It is inscribed “FOR ROGER SIMON! WITH FRIENDLY WISHES FROM Ray Bradbury, Dec. 1, 1985.” The inscription is in block letters as I have typed them and the word “friendly” is underlined. Ray Bradbury is signed in cursive.

After our work was done, Ray looked at me and said, “Would you mind driving me home?”

I was taken aback at first, but held my tongue, long enough to learn what many others already knew.

Ray Bradbury, the great master of science fiction and the future, didn’t have a driver’s license. And, yes, he was a longtime resident of the city of the car, Los Angeles. (I found out subsequently that he wasn’t the only famous L.A. resident who didn’t drive. Among others were Mae West and Erich von Stroheim. Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road, also didn’t drive. But he lived in Massachusetts.)

So I drove Ray home. I did that on a couple of other occasions, as I recall, when our paths crossed at writers’ events. A number of other literary-types I knew were similarly drafted. We would joke about it.

Anyway, that’s my Ray Bradbury story. Now, in his honor, I am going to crawl into bed with a book – Death Is a Lonely Business.

True enough.

Also at PJM, Michael Ledeen posts a great Bradbury anecdote of his own:

A great writer, a great American.  I devoured his books, was never disappointed.  I think I started with Dark Carnival, and then…well, I can’t remember what came next.  I do have two memories of him, one direct, the other maybe something he wouldn’t have welcomed but would no doubt have given him a good laugh.

The direct memory was of a speech he gave to a big crowd of American businessmen in L.A., and he talked a lot about the power of imagination, and he urged them all to embrace their dreams, even the wildest ones, and to pursue them, because we’re in America and anything is possible.  After all, he’d spent years writing about Mars (both Mars as a metaphor and the “real” Mars), and then early one morning the first earth vessel was landing on Mars and he’d been invited to the Jet Propulsion laboratory in Pasadena to watch the first pictures arrive.  He told us how excited he was, and how emotional everybody became when the first photos came in:  “They were wonderful pictures, and grown men were crying…”

And then a television journalist shoved a mic into his face and said, “Well, Bradbury, how does it feel?  All these years you’ve been dreaming about Mars and writing about Mars, and here are the first pictures from Mars, and there’s no sign of life anywhere.  So how does it feel?”

Bradbury yelled at us.  “I shouted at him.  I shouted “Fools!  Fools!  There IS life on Mars.  And it is US.”

It sent chills up my spine.  What a brilliant response it was.  If he’d had a month to write it, even he couldn’t have improved it.

Incidentally, just as today’s “liberalism” is much less militaristic but no less insidious and all-encompassing than Orwell’s predictions, the book destruction that Bradbury predicted is occurring — just not with flamethrowers. Recall those famous letters: CPSIA.