Thursday, September 22, 2016

Review: The Veldt by Ray Bradbury is a chilling tale of technological addiction gone horribly wrong [SPOILERS]

I have a terrible secret, though that I may as well share now: I’ve never read any of Ray Bradbury’s books. The fault is entirely on me. Outside of comics and the internet, I wasn’t much of a prolific reader growing up. Things didn’t change until the Summer of 2011 when I finally got into fantasy and soon after, science fiction. And yet, in those four years I still haven’t read any of his books from beginning to end nor any of his short fiction until now. It’s something I’m working to rectify and that brings us back around to October as my own Ray Bradbury Reading Month.

I decided the other day that I would dedicated the month of October to reading some of the works of Bradbury. He’s a man for whom my thinkbox associates with the fall season and that month in particular. It might have something to do with his books Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Halloween Tree, and his short story collection, October Country, among others, all of which I plan on reading. 

So, with that in mind I decided that it would be best to sample his work before diving in headfirst and what better place to start than with one of his most well known collections, The Illustrated Man? What better story than The Veldt?
The main theme of The Veldt is the dangers of being too over-reliant on the comforts of technology. I’ve read before that Bradbury had a critical opinion of modern technology and its effects on people. His most famous book, Fahrenheit 451 was supposedly about the potentially destructive nature of television and the danger to books and reading before it morphed into a tale of extreme censorship and anti-intellectualism that it’s so well known for nowadays. Here, the message is how dependency on technology and modern conveniences can be damaging to the family structure. Bradbury goes a bit overboard in his depiction of the Hadley family’s wonder house, but it works as a satirical take on the ludicrous abundance of gadgets and gizmos that do things that can still be easily done by a person. Examples in the story include machines that will bathe you, dress you, cut up your food, and even tie your shoes. A bit over the top, but not a stretch from what you find advertised on TV today.

The plot of The Veldt concerns the aforementioned Hadley family and the parents concern over the house’s newly installed nursery, which isn’t so much a nursery as like a proto-holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Like that marvelous piece of technology, the nursery is capable of recreating any place or thing that you could want in vivid and life-like detail. 

A little too life-like as the story bears out. 

What concerns first the mother, Lydia, and later the father, George, is that the nursery seems to be “stuck” on the eponymous veldt despite attempts to change the setting to somewhere else. They also begin to worry about both the dependency of their two children, Wendy and Peter, have with the nursery and their increasingly insubordinate attitude towards their parents. The latter turns adversarial after George decides to bar entry to the nursery until he has things checked out with a psychologist friend and later, then later declares his intention to shut the entire house down and move the family to a less high-tech abode on the advice of his friend, David McClean. 

Here, the story starts to take its dark turn. McClean explains to George that the nursery is stuck on the veldt because it’s giving manifest to the negative thoughts and feelings that Peter and Wendy have for their parents because they’ve grown so attached to it that they now see the nursery as their parent and family. A technological addiction that soon proves fatal. Having found an old wallet of George’s earlier, they now find a scarf belonging to Lydia and that seals it for the parents. George proceeds to shut every machine down in the house and his decision to move to the midwest and away from this wonder house.

And then makes the biggest mistake of his life. The kids throw a temper tantrum as children are wont to do and he relents to give them one final minute of time in the nursery while he and his wife get prepared to leave. Then when the the two kids start hollering for them, rush to the nursery...and are locked inside by their own children. It’s only in their last moments of life before the ever present lions pounce that they realize why the screaming they heard the night before sounded so familiar - it was the screams of their own simulations being killed by the lions. The wallet and scarf they’d found earlier belonged to those simulations.

The next day, McClean visits the family to check up on them, but finds only the children having lunch in the veldt of the nursery and curiously wonders what the ever present lions have just finished eating…  

What I liked: Everything. The Veldt is only twelve pages long, but Ray Bradbury packed one hell of a punch in those twelve. Even though I quickly begin to suspect that the story is going to end with Peter and Wendy going Lyle and Erik Menendez on their parents, I was still shocked and chilled. And this is just the first story in The Illustrated Man, so I have to assume that at least some of the rest are as good, if not better.  

What I didn’t like: Nothing. The gadgets and gizmos for everything initially seems overdone, but once I thought about it, I quickly realized that it all made sense as a point of satire. It probably could have been a little bit longer, but I’m not going to quibble over that.

Conclusion: If just one short story can speak of the voluminous talent of a writer, then The Veldt may never stop talking about Ray Bradbury.

Rating: 9/10.

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