Advice from the Late Great Ray Bradbury: Be an "Optimalist"
Ray Bradbury died on Tuesday, June 5, at the age of 91. In 2001, I had the pleasure of interviewing him. To many in my generation he was a hero and a truth-teller, as he saw the truth. Here's to Ray.
So you don't like to be thought of as a science-fiction writer, said the reporter to the great writer.
"No," said Ray Bradbury, who called back after the fax had rolled in. The fax machine is one of his only concessions to post-modern technology. "Have you noticed that we have all these machines but no one calls anymore?" he added.
Well, it's true, said the reporter, thinking of something his 19-year-old son had told him.
The "post-information" society, that's what his son and some of his intellectual friends call today's emerging culture. By post-information they mean: We've reached a stage in history, an evolutionary leaping-off point, when we're overwhelmed by so much information that information doesn't mean anything anymore -- and the only real meaning is found in the direct communication between two people.
"That's right," said Bradbury, approvingly. "You pick and choose. Use what you want."
This was high praise for an idea, coming from the dean -- the master -- of dark, nostalgic futurism. The author of such classic works as "Something Wicked This Way Comes," "The Martian Chronicles," "I Sing the Body Electric" and "The Illustrated Man," he is neither pessimist nor optimist.
Bradbury prefers the word "optimalist."
He lives in Los Angeles. He does not drive. He is 80 years old. He has lost the sight in one eye. He is recovering from a stroke and learning to walk all over again. And he can't wait to get up in the morning.
Though he's still immensely popular, he's not the main inspiration for post-information thinking among college students. That honor, apparently, goes to William S. Burroughs, the Beat-generation writer, drug-taker, wife-shooter.
"Burroughs is crap," snorted Bradbury. "Crap. Tell your son not to read Burroughs. Terrible stuff." He snorted again. But he warmed to the post-information society, a notion that does seem to mirror his thinking.
Half a century ago, Bradbury wrote "Fahrenheit 451," named for the temperature at which paper burns. In the world of that story, people are seduced by technology; they become addicted to factual information; they adore the kind of entertainment now known as reality TV. Factoids bring bliss. But books? Books look for meaning among the facts; books raise too many questions; books make people uncomfortable.
In "Fahrenheit 451," home construction is technologically perfect; houses no longer burn. So firemen, at loose ends, burn books, because books make people unhappy.
Today, Bradbury sees that world around us. He rails at such TV programs as "Jeopardy" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" because they push factoids (the new opiate of the masses), not true information -- not understanding. Public education isn't much better, in his view. No need to burn books if people can't read.
But what about the information riches of the new age? What about . . . e-mail?
"I don't own a computer," he said. "I don't believe in those things. Why should I have a computer? Just because someone tells me I should have one? I have a pad of paper and a pencil and a typewriter." What kind? "IBM Selectric. Correctable." What about using the Internet for research? "I don't do research. I never have." He does subscribe to two newspapers, the International Herald Tribune and The Wall Street Journal, "for the editorials." And he does go to the library. "That's all you need."
The reporter thinks of something he heard the other day. A teacher at Chula Vista High School was telling his class about how we baby-boomers grew up enthralled with the idea of space travel, how we were hypnotized by the beauty of man's first step on the moon, and how the dream of space travel seems to have inexplicably faded. Someone in the class spoke up, "Ah, but it was all made up anyway."
The student repeated the old legend that the moon landing was staged on some Hollywood back lot. The teacher was stunned. He asked: How many students in this class believe that the moon landing was faked? About half the students raised their hands. Here, the teacher thought, is a generation growing up in a world where everything, from photographs to movies to your mother's double chin can be digitally rearranged. The teacher went home depressed. Whether we're starved for information or suffocated by information, the end result is about the same.
Bradbury doesn't let such things get him down. Asked what he thinks about genetic engineering, robotics, nano-robotics and the other spooky new technologies, he snorts again. "People who worry about that, they're full of crap, that's all. They're not going to create anything."
But a lot of the technology is already on the ground, for example the miniature robots that will be able to enter the body . . .
"Yeah, but it's not going to happen. It's just not going to. That's all. Just ignore it."
Anyway, he's busy. "I have two novels coming out in the next year, two books of poetry, two books of essays and three motion pictures. Outside of that, I'm going downhill." He laughed, for the first time.
As he has for decades, he gets up every morning at 9 a.m. and writes for two hours. "You can write a short story in two hours. Two hours a day, you have a novel in a year." What does he do for the rest of the day? "Answer letters and get in the way of my wife."
So, said the reporter, what advice would Bradbury offer the young, growing up in the post-information society? Simple. Don't worry; be creative. "Fall in love, stay in love. Find something you love and love it for a lifetime. If you want to be a good writer, be the best writer in the world. That's what I've done."
In other words, be an optimalist.
Richard Louv is the author of eight books, including "THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age," He is chairman emeritus of The Children and Nature Network. A version of this column ran in The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2001.
Photo from www.raybradbury.com
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