A few thoughts about Ray Bradbury, writing, communication, and anthropology.
If there is one author that first sparked my interest in what we broadly call “the human condition,” it would definitely have to be the late Mr Ray Bradbury (William Golding gets a close second with The Lord of the Flies). I first read some of Bradbury’s short stories way back in seventh grade, and his words have stayed with me ever since (I only wish I could find my seventh grade English teacher to let him know his efforts were not wasted).
Bradbury’s science fiction was always deeply human, and often full of poignant warnings about the potential future of the human race. He was especially preoccupied with the machines we create, and how they can assert a certain amount of control over our lives. Near the end of his life he was quoted saying this: “We have too many cellphones. We’ve got too many internets. We have got to get rid of those machines. We have too many machines now.”
One of the stories that I remember most vividly is The Veldt–a story in which two young children end up killing their parents in a savage attempt to protect their treasured virtual world. It’s a brutal, edgy story that certainly resonates these days, especially with so many people–young and old–buried in various virtual realities. What happens, after all, when the virtual has more value than the real? Bradbury certainly had some ideas about that question.
But the story that I remember the most is a simple, short little tale about a mechanized house that keeps serving its masters long after they have been vaporized: There Will Come Soft Rains.
It’s really a simple, short little story. The title comes from a 1920 poem by Sara Teasdale that contemplates the resurgence of nature after the utter destruction of war. The language that Bradbury uses is anything but complex. It’s straightforward, but still heavy with suggestive implications and meanings. That’s one of my favorite parts about Bradbury’s style: his writing had an elegant clarity that was laden with symbolism, moral messages, and lessons about humanity.
For me, there’s a lot to be learned from a writer like Bradbury. Not just because of the themes he covers, but also his mechanics, craft, and communicative style. Through relatively sparse prose, he was certainly able to communicate important ideas in effective, interesting, and evocative ways. For more about his writing and style, check out this piece by Orson Scott Card (author of fantastically anthropological books such as Ender’s Game).
Ok, here’s the part where I bring in anthropology, since this is an anthropology blog after all. First of all, a lot of science fiction writing–from the Dune series to Orwell’s 1984–has a strong anthropological twist to it. And I think there is something we can all take away from how great science fiction writers are able to communicate their ideas to wider audiences. Anthropologists are all around the world, and they happen to be doing some pretty fascinating work. But if their ideas are never really communicated or shared with broad audiences, then what’s the point? I mean, why spend all of our time and energy creating mountains of documents that nobody (beside other anthropologists and maybe a tenure committee or two) ever really reads?
This brings me to my second and final point. Let’s go back to Bradbury’s story about those soft rains that will, eventually, shower upon the collected works of humanity and spark nature’s return. The point of Bradbury’s story is, at least in part, about the incessant machines and creations of humanity that keep droning along even when the humans are all gone. The irony is that people made all of those household devices that were supposed to take care of their every little need, day in and day out. Meanwhile, those same people forgot to tend to the BIGGER ISSUES and they ended up nuking one another and wiping out the human race. So much for the automated technological genius of the little house. It all seems so pointless. The point, to me, is something like this: don’t let all of your neat little creations obscure those bigger issues.
Which brings me to academic anthropology. In some ways, anthropology is kind of like that automated house that keeps working, on and on, despite the well-being of many of its inhabitants. We are like the little machines in the house that keep doing our prescribed tasks (writing papers, grants, books, etc) because, well, that’s how the whole damn thing works. But what about the people who live in the house (that’s us)? And what about humanity as a whole (read: the general public)? What’s the purpose of putting in the time to create all of this information, to gather all of those stories and ideas, if we are effectively really only talking to ourselves? I mean, if we are all taking part in the massive production of this mountain of documents, and yet very few people outside of the discipline have a solid appreciation or understanding of what we do…there’s clearly something amiss in the house of anthropology. And personally, I’d rather not wait until the soft rains begin falling to start putting that house back in order.
*Title updated on 6/10/12 once I noticed there was a bit of a caps snafu.