I never knew any of my grandparents; the last died when I was eighteen months old. So this story hit me hard when I found it in a collection of his, probably one I browsed and bought in Belfast Waterstones, looking for ways out of my childhood Doctor Who obsession. We’re talking late eighties. Bradbury’s SF stuff is great, of course, but it’s the straight domestic pieces that have really stayed with me. Decades later, I can still feel the precise quality of shiver I got from stories of his I’ve never read since. This one is a vision of artificial unconditional love, maybe prefiguring what we’re finally getting close to now in AI. But I don’t think Bradbury’s is a cautionary tale; I remember it as a celebration. I might be wrong, though. I haven’t looked at it since my teens. No need. I know exactly how certain moments in that story make me feel, and how much they mean to me, so why would I want to go back? I’ve got it locked up inside.
First published in McCall’s Magazine, August 1969, under the title ‘The Beautiful One is Here’; adapted from his Twilight Zone screenplay, first broadcast 1962. First published under this title in the eponymous collection, 1969. Collected in Ray Bradbury Stories Volume 1, HarperVoyager, 2012, and The Stories of Ray Bradbury, Everyman, 2010
Do you remember when you were a child and you encountered, for the first time, a piece of art or writing that left you shaken? Not just moved, but a little disturbed. For me, that feeling was always coupled with secrecy, a belief that if my parents knew something had gotten under my skin it would cause them undue worry. The first time I remember feeling this was with (as any astute member of the literati might guess) A Goofy Movie. In the 1994 animated film, there’s scene where father and son face their own mortality as their raft veers toward a waterfall, and in the moments before their presumed death, they are left only with their love for one another and a bald and desire to survive. (Pretty goofy if you ask me!) I insisted on returning to see it in the cinema again and again, until something of that semi-shameful fixation had released its grip on me, and I probably got really into Polly Pocket or something.
The next time I felt that morbid fascination was after reading ‘The Veldt’. We’d been made to read Dandelion Wine in my middle school English class and it was so goddamn boring it became a bit of a family joke among us. My dad – a sci-fi obsessive – made it his mission to give us different, better Bradbury. Before I knew it there was a copy of The Illustrated Man in my hands, and in the collection’s opening story, ‘The Veldt’, children grow increasingly immersed in their home VR unit, which places them in a rendering of the African plains. The simulation becomes more and more real, until the story-perspective shifts – to the childrens’ parents – and, uh…yeah it gets pretty grim.
What felt stirring and secret to me wasn’t ‘The Veldt’s implied violence, but rather that an unhappy ending could enrich a story. And in early adulthood, when traumatising oneself with disturbing prose is sort of the name of the game (the time Less Than Zero ruined Christmas is a story for another time) I’m grateful for ‘The Veldt’ and Bradbury’s gentle ushering into the world of weird fiction.
First published as ‘The World the Children Made’ in The Saturday Evening Post, September 1950. Collected in The Illustrated Man, Doubleday, 1951 and widely anthologised, including in Collected Stories Volume 1, Harper Voyager, 2008, and The Stories of Ray Bradbury, Everyman, 2010
The last short story I read as part of my challenge that year was The Last Night of the World by the science-fiction legend Ray Bradbury (I’d highly recommend his book on writing, Zen and the Art of Writing). This story begins when a husband asks his wife, “What would you do if you knew that this was the last night of the world?” She asks if he’s means there’s a war coming, an atomic bomb, or germ warfare. Stirring his coffee, the man says: “But just, let’s say, the closing of a book.” He predicts that it’s the last night of the world because of an ominous dream, one his colleagues have also reported. There’s a calm, accepting attitude throughout, and the woman goes on to ask her husband if they “deserve” the end of the world. He assures her that it has nothing to do with “deserving.” After putting the kids to bed, the husband and wife spend their last night together in the most ordinary manner – washing dishes, playing a game. The man asks his wife if she thinks they’ve been “bad”, She says no, but they haven’t been “enormously good” either. She thinks that’s the root of the problem: “We haven’t been very much of anything except us, while a big part of the world was busy being lots of quite awful things.” In bed, they kiss each other. He says: “We’ve been good for each other, anyway.” The story forces its readers to reconsider an age-old question about how we choose to live our lives, about the inherent value of the ordinary moments – and sheds new light on what bravery and courage look like in the face of an inevitable ending.
First published in the February 1951 issue of Esquire and available to read here. Collected in Stories Volume 1, HarperVoyager, 1980
The title is from an anti-war poem by Sara Teasdale. The story is about a lone house that remains intact in a city obliterated by a nuclear bomb. There is no dialogue, other than the chilling automated pre-recorded devices within the house, giving the illusion that these objects are alive. The only things alive. The shock of the shadows of the family on the wall, frozen in time, is an eerie, emotionally annihilating, and starkly relevant, image.
First published in Collier’s Weekly, 1950, and collected in The Martian Chronicles, 1997
A lot of my exposure to short stories comes through listening to readings or dramatizations on the radio, and my habit of falling under their thrall leads to many scorched shirts abandoned mid-ironing and dishes left unwashed in the sink. The BBC iPlayer Radio app portions its ‘Drama’ into particular (often baffling) genre categories, and generally my thumb slips to the ‘Horror/Supernatural’ and ‘Psychological’ labels. When the continuity announcer gave a quick precis for the day’s story and a rumbling, stern voice introduced itself (‘This is Ray Bradbury…’) I almost unplugged my headphones: I had decided I knew what ‘Sci-fi’ meant, was and could be, and that it could not possibly hold anything for me. I was an idiot, and soon an agog, reformed idiot with something in their eye.
Men are drifting in space. ‘They were scattered into a dark sea; and the ship, in a million pieces, went on, a meteor swarm seeking a lost sun.’ Their communication channels are still open, and they are able to talk for a short while as they spin further and further apart.
Original story, published 1951, adapted drama broadcast in 1991 which I believe you can hear here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjeiHRm8LNE