Last time, I took a walk with Mr. Leonard Mead, the eponymous character of Ray Bradbury’s The Passenger. Bradbury’s story could be interpreted as a scathing depiction of a world addicted to technology, but I saw it as, instead, an exploration of the fear that the world will pass us by and our way will become obsolete; old; wrong.
Now, we turn our eye to another Ray Bradbury story, with characters far removed from The Pedestrian’s technophobic lead. I’m also currently reading Stephen King’s latest collection of short stories, The Bizarre of Bad Dreams, and a certain quote from King’s introduction came to mind as I pondered The Veldt’s place in Bradbury’s larger bibliography. King writes, speaking of his stories: “I made them especially for you. Feel free to examine them, but please be careful. The best of them have teeth.”
And The Veldt, short and punchy as it is, certainly is among the best. Like Bradbury’s photo above, it also features cats… and, as King warns of his own tales, The Veldt’s cats, like the stories themselves, have bigger teeth than you might expect.
“But I thought that’s why we bought this house, so we wouldn’t have to do anything?”
The Veldt, originally titled The World the Children Made, tells a chilling story about a future dependent on ever-expanding technology. Bradbury doesn’t establish what year it is, but much like the world in which The Pedestrian is set, folks don’t have any decidedly compelling reasons to leave their home. Especially not if they’ve purchased a Happylife Home like the Hadleys.
The Happylife Home is a house that does… well, everything for you. It cooks for you, ties your shoelaces, blows you up to your bedroom with a rush of air. The house, of course, takes away the agency of those living inside of it – or so it seems. While the elder Hadleys, Peter and Wendy, named after another pair of literary figures, have been infantilized by their home, their children spend all of their time in the nursery, an ultra-realistic virtual reality simulator. While this starts out as a means by which the children can express themselves and relieve their adolescent angst, they begin to use its vast capabilities for more sinister purposes. Instead of acting as a mode of release, the room becomes a channel for their hateful thoughts… directed, of course, at their parents.
The story suggests that the house itself, and specifically the nursery, have replaced the parents, and that’s true. The house takes care of the children, entertains them, and essentially performs all of the necessary functions that parents do, along with a host of things that no human alive is capable of. What’s interesting, though, is that this story presents far more than a cautionary tale of technology replacing people. This story is also a warning against parents who raise children without leaving behind their own childhood.
Peter and Wendy, true to their Neverland namesakes, have abandoned their adulthood. To me, it isn’t just that the house has replaced them as parents, but what is especially damning is that while their children have an entire world within the playroom to grow, create, and foster their feelings – vengeful malice being one particular feeling – Peter and Wendy themselves have no such medium of expression. They are voiceless, meaningless, so when they attempt to reprimand or control their children, they are treated like something worse than children. They’re treated like fodder, fuel for another bloody fantasy in the playroom.
And that, to me, is the terrifying core of this. The idea that there are two sides to technology: one that can engage us and empower us to create, and another that, if we aren’t careful, can rob us of our soul and turn us into shells. I don’t think Bradbury was ever afraid of technology itself – no, I think his stories suggest that he is fascinated with it, enamored with its spreading shadow. I think what scared Bradbury was the idea of how humanity, once they were given a tool in which to improve their lives and the world, would instead use it to ruin themselves.
The Veldt, originally published in The Saturday Evening Post, can be found in Ray Bradbury’s short story collection: The Illustrated Man.
PAT SHAND writes comics (Robyn Hood, Hellchild, Suckers), novels (Charmed for HarperCollins), and pop culture journalism (Sad Girls Guide, Blastoff Comics). Of the many worldly things that are known for stealing one’s soul, he prefers a good story.