Future Media Short Story Review: Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian” (1951)

The second story in my series on the science fictional media landscape of the future!

Today: Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian” first appeared in the August 7th 1951 issue of The Reporter. You can read it in the February 1952 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas online here.

Previously: Lino Aldani’s “Good Night, Sophie” in Futuro, no. 1, ed. Lino Aldani, Giulio Raiola and Massimo Lo Jacono (March/April 1963). You can read it in English translation online here.

Next up: Avram Davidson and Sidney Klein’s “The Teeth of Despair” first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Robert P. Mills (May 1961). You can read it online here.

4/5 (Good)

You can read “The Pedestrian” in the February 1952 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas here.

Scenes and fragments from Fahrenheit 451 (1953), The Martian Chronicles (1951), Dandelion Wine (1951), The Illustrated Man (1951), and I Sing the Body Electric! (1969) percolate through my memories like embers that refuse to flicker out. The oppressive Venusian rains in “All Summer in a Day” (1954) and the carcasses consumed by lions in “The Veldt” (1951) remain the most distinct. Beacons of cryptic violence and sadness that continue to guide my reading adventures. All were from my first years of reading SF. Some were from cassette audiobooks with my family on long travels into the west. Others read in distant pastures surrounded by the sounds of creeks and roving cows. Until today, he was firmly an author of my youth. Yes, I’d seen (and enjoyed) the 1966 François Truffaut adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 in college but I’d never returned to the texts…

Written in the earliest years of the personal television boom in the United States, “The Pedestrian” imagines a silent night city in which its denizens are transfixed by their screens. TV sales jumped from 7k sold in 1944 to 2 million in 1950 (and by the end of the decade 90% of homes contained a TV) (source), Bradbury maps the contours of a dystopic 2131 A.D. through the nightly perambulations of Leonard Mead. Mead, without wife or employment (he was a writer earlier in his life) or TV, wanders the streets at night and whispers to every house as he moved: “What’s up tonight on Channel 4, Channel 7, Channel 9?” (90). He imagines the silent city as “the center of a plain, a wintry, windless Arizona country with no house in a thousand miles, and only dry riverbeds, the streets, for company” (90). And so Mead walks, reflective, and alone… And then one night the last police car in the city of three million intercepts him.

Like Keith Roberts’ “Sub-Lim” (1965) and Kit Reed’s “At Central” (1967), “The Pedestrian” postulates a future where television becomes–perhaps from more innocuous beginnings–a form of social control. The conception of the family man in an air-conditioned house filled with the newest television sets becomes the only acceptable way of living. Bradbury’s prose tears into the disturbing heart of things with his evocative descriptions–in one instance Mead observes people in their houses as “tombs, ill-lit by television light” where they “sat like the dead” unable to make meaningful connections in the dark of the night (91).

Bradbury’s dystopia seems self-generating. Over time, with more channels and more shows, people will slowly turn inward. And over time, as crime decreases and budgets for patrols and other services are no longer needed, laws will compel the status quo to remain the status quo. And everyone else will be left out in the cold cold night.

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32 thoughts on “Future Media Short Story Review: Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian” (1951)

  1. Didn’t quite come true…there’s a lot of patrolling still going on, despite a ubiquity of TV that exceeds Bradbury’s most pessimistic imaginings. Depressing vision of the present from the past, hm?

    • We still have 109 years to go to see if it comes true (set in 2131)! But, in all seriousness, I love the story for how simple and icy it feels. And, while a reactionary anti-TV story written in the earliest years of the boom, it holds a mournful power.

  2. I think this one is probably better than his “Fahrenheit 451”, which of course has a very similar theme, and more like the typical imagery and lyricism of “The Martian Chronicles” and “Dandelion Wine”. There is some very evocative writing in it, as you say.

    Not all science fiction comes true as you know, and the ones that do, usually become uninteresting and dated, because SF derives much of it’s power from it’s mystery. It’s themes of isolation and totallitarianism are more important than predicting a dystopian future. As you say, you like it for it’s simplicity and iciness.

  3. It’s an excellent example of what a good writer can do with a short story, and a single idea – taking the growing predominance of TV in his own time into an imagined future. There’s the innocence of what Leonard Mead is doing, just going for an evening walk, and at the same time it’s a perceived threat, because he’s so different/ not doing what everyone else is doing. The patrol car, patrolling to ensure everyone’s safety, and yet the ominousness of no-one inside it when Mead gets in. It’s not a prophetic story, but Bradbury takes an idea and runs with it. For me, that’s another sign of a great story, no axe to grind, but a ‘what if’ to make a reader think.

    • I agree that parts of its effectiveness comes from Mead’s innocent actions — and, through small implications, his deep sadness. Without partner, without profession, without human contact…. I do feel that we have the ability to slip into and lose ourselves in media worlds without noticing it. Hence my comment about the vibe that the dystopia, at least initially, was self-forming.

  4. It’s such a slight yet precise piece. I agree with Richard Fahey that it’s better than Farneheit 451. But then I feel that the latter is truly one of the most over hyped and underwhelming books produced by Bradbury. Indeed “The Pedestrian” much more effectively conjures the fear associated with anti-communism of the early 50s US. Though I’m still not sure if I like it!

  5. This has become more true with the echo chamber the internet has created more so than TV ever did. I think that is at least partly because what is on TV always has been controlled and censored…. ironic given is take on that.

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