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.
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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