Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Musings on Ray Bradbury's The Veldt

Ray Bradbury is one of my heroes.  I was saddened when he passed away a few years back, but thankfully, he left behind an enormous body of work that I can read and re-read whenever the urge strikes. As tribute to the man whose work ignited a spark in me to create, I’ve been going back and rediscovering some of my favorite Bradbury stories.  Recently, I read "The Veldt" from his excellent collection, "The Illustrated Man."

One of the great things about short stories or any kind of creative work is that you can glean something new each time you peruse it.  Maybe "The Veldt" struck a chord with me today because I have a nine-year-old son, and the story took on new meaning because I’m seeing things from a father’s perspective now.  Maybe it’s because it has been a couple of years since I read it last, and experience has given me a new outlook on certain things.  Or maybe I was simply in a different frame of mind this go round.  Whatever the case, something immediately struck me about this story and about Bradbury as an author.  Bradbury has been credited as a sort of space-age prophet who foresaw some of the technological breakthroughs we enjoy today and envisioned many of the advancements in science that have made our lives easier.  Yet, in reading "The Veldt," it seems he also prophesied the role-reversal of kids dominating their parents and the widespread prevalence of Mother and Father catering to their children’s every whim by substituting electronic gadgetry for actual parenting.

Now, for those who haven’t read the story, I won’t include any spoilers here.  However, I think "The Veldt" should serve as a cautionary tale for all those parents like George and Lydia Hadley, who allow technology to take over and raise their children for them.  The Hadleys have a home that provides every creature comfort one could imagine, all the way from a table that prepares meals to lighting that turns itself off and on to shoe tie-ers which remove even the need for that particular mundane skill.  Then, there is the nursery which establishes a telepathic link with the Hadley children and transforms itself into whatever scene the kids envision in their minds.  Lydia Hadley becomes uncomfortable with the way in which their entire lives revolve around technology, and she suggests that they unplug for a while.  The children have a different idea.

So many times now parents park their children in front of a television set, thrust an Xbox controller into their hands, settle them at a computer, or equip them with a smart phone to pacify them.  In the process, the bond between parent and child is weakened, and eventually the children come to rely on television and the Internet for their parenting because the parents themselves are too busy changing their status on Facebook or staring at their own smartphones to make sure they don’t miss an incoming text.  The children, left on their own, find a certain lack of authority governing their lives and consider themselves to be autonomous or at the very least on equal footing with Mom and Dad.  It doesn’t sound possible until you stop and watch the power struggles that go on daily between children and their parents and realize that a lot of times the children win those fights.     

"The Veldt" was originally published around 1951.  Long before cell phones.  Long before gaming consoles. Long before home computers and the Internet.  It seems strange that even back then Bradbury would foresee the need to unplug from technology every now and then or else face the same sort of dire consequences as the Hadleys.  It also is a little frightening and uncanny how his vision of today’s kids is so accurate in certain ways.  Peter and Wendy Hadley are brats of the highest order, and when the threat of removing their technology and pulling the plug on their virtual reality nursery is placed before them, they aren’t having it.  Tell a child in today’s world that you are going to pack his Xbox up for a few days or block texting on her cell phone and watch the fireworks commence.      

Having worked in the cell phone industry for a few years, I’ve seen first hand how kids dominate well-intentioned parents who come in, never planning to spend hundreds of dollars on smartphones and Internet plans.  Yet time after time the parents say no, advertise to the world that they are putting their foot down and not giving in to the petulant child, only to pick that foot up a few minutes later as they dig out their credit card to pay for an Android phone or an Ipad or some other piece of technology that will keep their kids occupied so the parents themselves can play Words with Friends or Tweet some new and uninteresting bit of trivia about what they are having for lunch.

So what are my thoughts after reading "The Veldt?"  First, Bradbury’s short stories are among the finest ever written, and "The Veldt" is a wonderful example of that.  Second, maybe I should examine my own parenting from time to time and not be so quick to abandon my son to the wonders of video games and computers.  I certainly don’t want to end up a slave to both my son and his gadgets.  With that said, I think I’ll act on what I’ve learned, turn off my computer, and go spend some time with my son.  Maybe we’ll read a book or go outside or find something else fun to do that doesn’t involve a power button.


If you're a fan of Bradbury's short stories and enjoy books like "The October Country," "The Illustrated Man," or "The Martian Chronicles," consider giving my little collection of strange tales a try.

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