By Dr. Charlie W. Starr
One of the most underrated writers in the history of American literature died in 2012. Ray Bradbury was born in 1920. He published his first story in the late 40s and continued to publish novels and stories and write for film and television in every decade thereafter. That might give Bradbury the longest tenure as a writer in American history—seven decades worth of work!
You wouldn’t call his books Christian, but the influence of growing up as an “Illinois Baptist” (as I once heard him call himself) is evident throughout, whether writing nostalgia, fantasy, or science fiction (works like The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine, and Fahrenheit 451). Indeed, some of the best lessons I ever learned came from the storytelling of Ray Bradbury.
The Happiness Machine
Bradbury was best known for his short story writing. One of my favorites is a chapter in Dandelion Wine about the “Happiness Machine.” Leo Auffman lives in small-town Illinois in 1928 with his wife, Lena, and a house full of children. When Leo decides he’s going to make a happiness machine, he works for weeks in his garage, neglecting his family until his project is com-
He then asks Lena to step into the machine where she sees sights, hears sounds, and smells aromas—all wonderful. Then she breaks down crying, and calls the device a sadness machine. It shows people places they’ll never see and reminds them of things they’ll never do. (Have you ever watched something on TV and wished you could be there?) It makes people miserable.
Suddenly the machine bursts into flame and almost burns the garage down. A few hours later Leo realizes he’s been a fool, and then he asks his friends if they’d like to see the real happiness machine, the one that’s been running for thousands of years. He takes them to a window and they look into his house where his kids are playing or setting the table for dinner and Lena is pulling a pot roast from the oven. Leo realizes family has been the happiness machine all along.
Another story that taught me a lesson is Bradbury’s “The Murderer.” In this story a psychiatrist tries to help a criminal—a man who has destroyed all the machines in his life. While the man tries to explain that machines are sucking the life out of and enslaving people, the psychiatrist counters that machines are freeing. He doesn’t succeed in his argument.
After the machine “murderer” is taken away, the psychiatrist spends the rest of his day answering three different phones, listening to several songs playing at once, responding to a pink lighted intercom on his desk, pressing a button on a wrist radio, opening a drawer when it buzzes, and repeating this process over and over again.
I mentioned that I learned a lesson from this story. But every morning, after I’ve watched the news and checked my DVR to see what shows recorded last night, I come into work, check my phone messages, look at the clock to see when my first class begins, check and respond to my e-mail, review my two or three Facebook pages, answer phone calls, look at several blogs and websites, send and receive cell phone texts, and work on my “Arts & Media” article for The Lookout—all while listening to Pandora radio on the Internet. Perhaps technology doesn’t free us as much as we think.
I heard Ray Bradbury speak in 1994. He told about a time a fair came to town when he was a boy. He went to the fair and paid to enter the tent of “Mr. Electrico.” The first thing the man in the cape and mask did was run out on stage, touch an electrified sword to the young Bradbury’s nose, and cry out, “Live forever!” We in the audience chuckled, and Bradbury said to us, “What a great idea, huh?” I think he meant to do it—to live forever. Bradbury once said that, after his meeting with Mr. Electrico, he wrote every day for the rest of his life.
I watched for years as this remarkable man seemed to refuse to die. Then in 2012, at the age of 91, and despite his best intentions otherwise, he died. And this, perhaps, is his best lesson to me: no one escapes death, and we’d better be prepared for it when it comes.
I hope Ray Bradbury held onto the Christian faith he knew as a child. That’s the only way any of us can be sure we will indeed live forever. What a great idea, huh?
Dr. Charlie W. Starr teaches English, humanities, and film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.