Was Bradbury always right?

It’s become a ritual to stand around and gawp at the great Science Fiction prognosticators. This both acknowledges their contributions and at the same time trivializes them as artists. Science Fiction authors are judged by their ability to guess the future of technology. The more accurate the guess the better. Like carnival mentalists who can guess your name (you’re often wearing it), or tell you that you mother’s favorite color is blue (it’s only the most common one). This strips the stories of anything else they might be. Is Blade Runner really only about cloning technology?

In order to turn this on its head I’d like to look at some of the things that Bradbury got wrong, why they were wrong, and what we can learn from his mistakes. I’m not going to list the guesses he missed, they may still come to be. The US Army is testing a Mechanical Hound right now. A new larger rover will be on Mars in a little over a month. Wall size TVs are getting common. Then how was he wrong? I want to avoid the discussion of some specific technology, but instead discuss how Bradbury thought about how we and technology interact.

I’ve become known as a tech geek, but most of my training and schooling is in the humanities. Anthropology is called a science, and Biological Anthropology meets a lot of those criteria, but after that — Naaah. Classical Archaeology has a huge amount of Art History. It assumes that a culture explains itself to itself through art; and that we, as fellow humans, can listen in on the conversation by studying the art. This isn’t just looking at what is represented, but by the choices of media and the constraints that assumptions make. I’ll make an example: Egyptian Statuary (all images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, metmuseum.org). What ideas, or mistakes, ruled the conventions that defined Egyptian art (or at least a small subset of them).

What we are looking at is a wooden statue about 8 inches tall, and a 20 inch high statue of Hathor. The point? Egyptian art doesn’t really have a 3/4 view. It’s meant to be viewed either from the front, or full profile. The 3/4 becomes awkward, that moment when we pass from one place to another, one truth to another, seeing parts of both but the entirety of neither. The art becomes fully resolved again as we complete our change of view. Was this some sort of technical limitation? Did the Egyptians simply not know how to make art fully in the round?

Above are images of a large statue of Hatshepsut, from her Mortuary Temple at Deir al Behari, most likely part of an outside walkway; and a small wooden female statuette, found by Howard Carter and dated to the Dynasty prior. It is most likely a household object. It could be anything from a ritual object to a toy. Both Hatshepsut and the small wooden female figure show more effective 3/4 views. Though neither reaches what was done in Greek art of the classical period (about 800 years later), neither are they accidents; both are what their creators set out to make. The head and face of Hatshepsut are far more effective then the body. The wooden female figure is very different then the others. It is schematic, without the extreme idealization of the others. Both the statue of Hatshepsut and the wooden female figure existed in places that weren’t at right angles. This shows that the artists and artisans of  Egypt were up to tackling creations that were out of the norms of right angles that they were used to. And, that the norms weren’t technical limitations, they were choices. The question is why did they choose what they did. Or, why did they make the mistakes that they did?

The standard answer, and one I agree with, is that the Egyptians lived in a square world. This, to a smaller extent, means that they thought of the universe as a square, but more, that they built a square world for themselves to live in. Their granaries are often round and domed, so they knew how to make round buildings. They could make round pillars of any size that amused them, so they understood the geometry of circles. But, they lived in square places. Places full of straight lines and right angles. Think of the Great Temple of Karnak — It’s linear in its design. The village of the workers for the Tombs of the Valley of the Kings was also a rectangle. This means, when an artist was making something, he looked at it from one side, then walked around and looked at it from the other side. You didn’t stop at the corner, any more then you wanted to sit at the corner of a table, or the corner of the room. It just isn’t a good place to sit, either you have no room and are banging elbows with your neighboors, or have to share what room there is with dust bunnies. A preference to stay out of the corners led to mistakes in the art.

I’ll join Ray Bradbury in pooh-poohing the political correctness of saying that artistic and cultural choices can’t be wrong. In this context it provides an excellent lens for critical thinking, and a means for us to break out of our own assumptions. By looking at the mistake of the poorly done 3/4 view we are forced to consider how the Egyptians saw themselves and saw their world.

So, what about Ray Bradbury? What assumptions led him to make mistakes in his art that same way that the Egyptians made a mistake in their 3/4 view statues. The mistakes I will look at occur in two stories. The Toynbee Convector and Fahrenheit 451.

More Later …

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6 thoughts on “Was Bradbury always right?

    • Thanks, and be careful what you wish for! I can really go on about Ancient Egypt. We have human activity in the Nile Valley running back to the Neanderthals. I was looking for a theme for this blog. Comparing SciFi to the Ancient and Classical worlds seems like an idea.

  1. I’ve always felt that proclaiming the accuracy of science fiction’s predictions was primarily a sign of science fiction begging to be taken seriously by the non-SF world, but that in reality, that accuracy was far from the most valuable of science fiction’s attributes. It just happened to be the one most easily understood by the wider world.

    Science fiction has been wrong far more than it has been right. Sure, sift through its history enough, and hundreds of accurate predictions can be found, but there are a thousand misfires for every bull’s eye.

    I’ve always felt the most valuable aspect of the literature of the fantastic is rather that it allows for metaphors that the tropes of mimetic fiction do not.

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