William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

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Monday, April 23, 2012

Sci-Guys Review: Ray Bradbury's "The Veldt"

I posted before about the interview I did for the Sci-Guys podcast. What I didn't mention at the time is that I've always wanted to be a reviewer. Well...I mean, I am a reviewer for CPU magazine and such, but I really wanted to be more in the vein of movie reviewer extraordinaire Roger Ebert. I've long believed that part of Ebert's enduring popularity hinges on his intelligence and perspective. He brings decades of both professional and human insight into his reviews. Often, they're as much about life as they are about movies. This is what sets Ebert apart. Any keyboard monkey can spin a snarky put-down, but very few can achieve elegance, humor, and wisdom all while writing "just" another review.

That's what I've always wanted to do, but computing doesn't allow much leeway for humanity in its media coverage. The best of my efforts in this direction can be found in my Architects of Tomorrow, Volumes 1 and 2 ebooks. But yeah, I get it. How much humanity and perspective can one inject into a Wi-Fi adapter review? Not much.

After the Sci-Guys interview, I had a crazy idea. I dropped a note to the guy who'd interviewed me, Sci-Guy John, and asked if there was any chance that I could do little reviews of short fiction ebooks on the show. He floated the idea around his group, and they agreed to give it a spin.

My first attempt at this appeared in Sci-Guys podcast 094. (You know they're geeks, because only nerds who survived Y2K would think to put a "0" in front of their otherwise two-digit show numbers.) My little segment appears about half-way through the show, and it got edited in just before going live, so there was no time to work with the audio levels and such. That's I sound like I'm French kissing the mic.

I'd encourage everyone with a funny bone and a strong stomach to enjoy the show, but if you just want the text of my review, here it is:

William’s Short Shorts: “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury

One day in sixth grade, in the middle of this otherwise godawful anthology of short stories for young readers, I found “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury. And my head exploded. It was my first taste of speculative fiction, that dark area of literature where the creepy and fantastic collide. Speculative fiction is as fascinating as it is disturbing, and it’s usually most disturbing when it makes you question your own humanity.

On one level, “The Veldt” is a parable about modern man and our love of technology. George and Lydia Hadley are recent purchasers of a Happylife Home, something straight off the Street of Dreams and then filtered through The Jetsons.

This Happylife Home’s main feature is its nursery, which is a dead ringer for the holodeck. Keep in mind that “The Veldt” was originally published in 1950, almost four decades before virtual reality and the holodeck arrived in Star Trek: The Next Generation. So when Bradbury describes the nursery as a space where 2D walls are able to simulate an African veldt grassland and its animal inhabitants with incredible 3D realism, and the environment is created from scans of the imaginations of the Hadley’s two children, this is science fiction at its forward-looking finest.

But “The Veldt” doesn’t focus on technology. Rather, it’s about how the Hadleys have become crippled by their dependence technology. The father needs more sedation at night. The mother is a nervous wreck. And their two children are spoiled brats who want to spend every waking minute enveloped in their video games—I mean, Happylife Home nursery. Faced with the shouting and pain of ripping their kids back into reality or letting the obsession continue, the Hadleys keep their kids on the electronic teat. The African environment grows increasingly real as the parents’ panic escalates.

So, when would you try to pull the plug? I mean, we just want our kids to be happy, right? It’s so easy to let technology lull us to sleep. But sometimes happiness goes too far. And don’t we all worry, deep down, that we might wake up just be a little...too late?

Even now, reading “The Veldt” still sends a shiver up my back. You can find it in Bradbury’s story collection, The Illustrated Man. This story opened my eyes to speculative fiction and changed my life. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and it seemed a great piece to kick off an ongoing series of short story reviews here on Sci-Guys. With the rise of ebooks, people are gradually rediscovering how incredible good shorter fiction can be. Not only can it pack the same punch as a novel, it’s often a better fit for people with busy schedules, and you can pick most stories up for less than a buck.

For now, don’t miss “The Veldt,” spelled V-E-L-D-T. I don’t see it on the Kindle or Nook yet, so this one time, please look for it on paper first. But whatever you do, don’t miss this story, and thanks for checking out my short shorts.

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